IT WAS the pride of Newcastle mayor Jeff McCloy, hosting the likes of Princess Mary and Giorgio Armani, but yesterday 16 people were forced to flee after Seafaris burned and sank off the north Queensalnd coast.
The 41m superyacht, believed to be worth about $12.5 million, is used for private chartered cruises throughout far north Queensland and had been moored overnight off Cow Bay, north of Port Douglas, when it exploded in flames just after 5.30am.
The fire, believed to have started in the engine room, ravaged the vessel and crew issued a mayday before they and the eight passengers jumped on life rafts and were picked up by a container ship about 90 minutes later.
Mr McCloy made an emergency dash from Newcastle to Cairns yesterday to meet crew and passengers.
One male passenger described being woken by crew early in the morning.
"One of the crew knocked on the door and said 'fire, fire, fire','' he said.
"We just got organised and got in the raft in the water.''
A female passenger commended the crew from both the yacht and the container ship Lica Maersk that came to their aid.
"(It was) not particularly (scary). They looked after us beautifully, it was very good,'' she said.
The prestigious vessel, which won the 2007 World Superyacht Award, was built in Newcastle and had a gym, hydrotherapy spa, cinema and helipad.
Torres Pilots Cairns operations manager Glen Allitt, who brought passengers from the container vessel to the Cairns marina, said a colleague had been on the container ship when it was diverted for the rescue.
"It's sunk now, it's gone. Apparently it stayed afloat on fire for about two hours and then there was a final explosion,'' he said. "They (passengers) are very, very fortunate."
A spokesperson from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said a mayday call was received at 5.55am and the container ship, which had been en route to Cairns, diverted, while the Dornier search and rescue plane and a helicopter also attended the scene.
"AMSA's emergency towage vessel Pacific Responder is en route to the scene where it will work with Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ) and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Agency to assess the situation and respond to any marine pollution issues,'' the spokesperson said.