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Mikhail Lermontov: History

Suspicious Circumstances!

History of the Mikhail Lermontov – An Introduction


A massive thank you to Kevin Dekker for giving me permission to reproduce this information on my site. This guy has put massive amounts of time and effort into researching the Lermontov and writing this.

Vodka on the Rocks

by Kevin Dekker (January 30, 2006)

The building of the Mikhail Lermontov can be traced back to the years just after World War Two when the Soviet Union embarked on a large ship building program, part of which was carried out at the MTW shipyards in Wismar, East Germany.

At 176 metres / 577 feet and with a gross tonnage of 20,500, the Ivan Franko class were the largest passenger ships then built by an East German shipyard. As such they became symbols of the renewed industrial capacity of East Germany.#

The final of five Ivan Franko class ships completed was the Mikhail Lermontov which was handed over in March 1972.

As with all Soviet-built merchant ships these ships were designed for rapid conversion to military use. The Ivan Franko class vessels would have made very useful military transports; they featured a hull strengthened for ice, reasonable speed of 20 knots at full maximum, large cargo capacity, vehicle decks, and a very good range of 10,000 miles.

The original design included no less than six large cargo handling cranes arranged in two superimposed pairs forward with another pair aft. The resulting balanced profile with staggered cranes forward gave the ships a purposeful appearance.

The ships were originally fitted out to carry 750 passengers and had a typical crew complement of 330. In 1982 the Mikhail Lermontov received her largest and final facelift. Her cabins were reconfigured to carry only 550 passengers, but in greater comfort.

A summer cruise in the South Pacific

In 1985-86 the Mikhail Lermontov was chartered to travel company ‘CTC’ for a summer cruising season in the South Pacific with stopovers in Australia and New Zealand. The passengers on cruise number 561 from Sydney included a large contingent of Australians.

She left Sydney on the 7th of February 1986 and visited a number of north eastern New Zealand ports before arriving in Wellington on the 15th of February. A brief stop allowed passengers the opportunity of sightseeing in New Zealand’s capital city.

Joining the vessel while she was in Wellington was the Marlborough Harbour Board Pilot and Acting General Manager Captain Don Jamison. He was to pilot the vessel into and out of the restricted waters of the Marlborough Sounds during her visit to Picton on the 16th. He was also qualified to act as Pilot in Milford Sound and it had been arranged that he would carry out this duty under a private contract when the ship reached Fiordland. Just who Jamison was actually working for at various stages of the cruise would later be contested in court as the Baltic Shipping Company sought to recover some of its losses as a result of the sinking. Also joining the ship to assist Jamison was Captain G.F. Neill, Marlborough’s Deputy Harbour Master who was receiving pilotage training.
Captain Don Jamison, Pilot of the Lermontov

The 52 year old Pilot Captain Jamison had spent 15 years at sea attaining the rank of Chief Officer before coming ashore and working for the Southland Harbour Board as Tug Master and Pilot. In 1970 he was appointed Harbour Master at Picton. He was described as enjoying an excellent reputation with the Soviet Navigators and had previously piloted the Mikhail Lermontov’s sister ship Alexander Pushkin into Picton.


A series of decisions to navigate through restricted waters

Leading up to the sinking Jamison had been working long hours including involvement in legal proceedings. He later implied that as a result of his workload he was mentally and physically exhausted when he took the Lermontov out of Picton, but was not aware of his condition at the time. His working day while piloting the ship in and out of Picton was a long one. He had some drinks the night the ship departed Wellington then was up at 5:00 a.m. the following morning to guide the ship in through Tory channel. He was again piloting the ship at 5:37 p.m. that evening over twelve hours later having consumed more alcohol that day.

In command of the ship was captain Vladislav Vorobyov. Since October he had been relieving the regular Captain, Aram Oganov, who was taking long service leave but was due to rejoin the ship on its return to Sydney.

The vessel set sail from Wellington at midnight on the 15th of February. Just before daybreak the following morning she was off the entrance of Tory Channel. The vessel’s agent had arranged for a helicopter to take pictures of her steaming through the Marlborough Sounds so the Captain waited until daybreak (7 a.m.) before allowing the Pilot to negotiate the narrow entrance.

Tory Channel was an unusual route inbound to Picton for a ship of the Lermontov’s size. Although the scenery here can be impressive, the early morning timing meant most passengers would still be in bed and the dreary weather was not conducive to sightseeing. Most visiting ships of the Lermontov’s size used the safer Queen Charlotte Sound route. Taking the vessel in through this narrow channel marked the first of a series of decisions to navigate the ship through restricted waters rather than through the main shipping channels.

Setting the Scene for Disaster

Ironically, Jamison’s confident handling of the ship through Tory Channel helped set the scene for impending disaster. The Russian officers on the bridge were at first uncomfortable with the close proximity of the rocks as the ship negotiated the narrow passage but Jamison confidently guided the ship through this entry. He completed the mornings’ duties by docking the ship in Picton at 8 a.m. without the assistance of tugs. After witnessing such a display the Russians would be inclined to accept the Pilot’s judgement in future.

Present on the bridge at that time were Chief Navigator Stephanishchev and Second Mate Gusev, the two Russian officers who would be on the bridge when Jamison made his decision to take the ship through the Cape Jackson passage.

Gusev was later reported as stating that the Pilot, “very competently manoeuvred the ship through the passage and into Tory Channel. His actions were sure and clear. He performed the same sure actions when turning between Cape Jackson and the lighthouse.”

With the ship berthed in Picton, passengers had a variety of activities ashore to choose from. There were bus trips to wineries, boat trips around the Sounds, or just a leisurely stroll around the township of Picton. The sight of a visiting cruise liner in Picton dominated the small port and most locals could only think with envy of the exotic holiday experiences being shared by the passengers.


A vodka or two!

The vessel was the scene of a luncheon reception and the first hint of controversy. How much alcohol was consumed by those present including Jamison? Was it possible that the tired and overworked Pilot could have been affected by even a small amount of alcohol? Don Jamison reportedly had two Vodkas and a glass of beer at the reception. Of his decision to drink that day before taking the ship out Jamison stated:

“I considered I was not impaired by any consumption of alcohol. However again in hindsight it may be indicative of my condition in that I would normally never consume alcohol for several hours prior to carrying out a pilotage function, and would normally have requested in such circumstances a glass of fruit juice or something similar.”

According to one report, Jamison had requested a good cabin be made available for himself and his wife. After completing his Pilot duties he would effectively be on holiday and taking a well earned break. He visited his office ashore but when he returned to the ship his wife did not accompany him. What would make her miss the opportunity of a cruise through Fiordland and then on to Sydney? Whatever the reason, it was to be a fortuitous decision, for the next leg of the ship’s cruise would be anything but routine.

Leaving Picton

The ship sailed from Picton just after 3 p.m. with 408 passengers and 330 crew aboard. The passengers looked forward to a cruise down the South Island’s West Coast and the beautiful scenery of Milford Sound. Little did they know they were not to view those majestic vistas on this cruise. A series of near groundings foreshadowed approaching disaster.

The first close encounter with the shore occurred when the vessel backed out of the wharf and turned to leave Picton. The stern came perilously close to the shore on the eastern side of the harbour. A crew member commented he had never seen a ship so close to the shore. One passenger thought that the ship had touched lightly on a sand bank near the shore.

The vessel then nosed out of Picton harbour but instead of heading straight out of the Sounds, Jamison decided to take her into Shakespeare Bay. He wanted to give passengers a view of the remains of the historic sailing vessel ‘Edwin Fox’, one of the oldest wooden merchant ships in existence. Shakespeare Bay was a very small area for a ship of the Mikhail Lermontov’s size to manoeuvre in and a tight turn was required. The ship did not respond as Jamison had anticipated and the engines had to be put full astern to prevent another grounding. A crew member on the bow estimated that the ship came within 30 meters of the shore. The Pilot had assumed the bow thrusters were available to assist in turning the ship. In fact they had been turned off but no one had informed him of this, and it took 30 seconds from first switching the system on before it could be used.

In the midst of all this Jamison slipped and fell, hitting his head in the process. He recovered his composure and appeared to have suffered no obvious injury so continued conning the ship. Was this fall indicative of the alcohol he had recently consumed and did the blow to the head further compound the effects of fatigue and alcohol? No one else on the bridge interpreted the incident in this light even though they had no trouble with their own footing.

Shortly after this incident the Pilot discussed the course with the Captain and they agreed that in view of the weather the passengers would not be interested in sightseeing and that it would be best to slowly steam out of Queen Charlotte Sound.

The Pilot Is Instructed to Keep Further from the Shore

If the previous events had shaken the Pilot it did not alter his persistence to take the vessel close to shore and through restricted channels. The usual route for vessels leaving Picton is to the East of Allports Island. Jamison chose to take her behind the island. This necessitated a hard turn to starboard to clear Golden Point. Once again the ship passed dangerously close to the shore. One cruise staff member later commented that it seemed they were so close if she had reached out her hand she could have touched the land.

Captain Vorobyov was concerned by this incident and instructed the Pilot to maintain a greater distance from the shore.

At about 4 p.m. the watch crew change occurred on the bridge. Those on duty now included Chief Navigator Sergey Stephanishchev, Second Mate Sergey Gusev, and Helmsman Anatoliy Burin. Neither the Chief Navigator or the Second Mate had been on the bridge during the earlier near misses. They had last seen Jamison in action when he gave the flawless display of ship handling through Tory Channel that morning and had little reason to doubt his judgement.

At 4:15 p.m. Assistant Pilot Neill disembarked onto the pilot boat, near Luke Rock. After this, the Pilot again discussed the planned route with the Captain. The Captain apparently changed his mind from his earlier decision and insisted that the purpose of the voyage was to show the passengers the best of the scenery. With the permission of the Captain, Jamison increased the speed of the ship to the full manoeuvring speed of 15 knots. As with most vessels, the big ship would answer the helm more positively at speed. Jamison probably anticipated the need for such responsiveness as he planned further close-up views of the scenery.

The Captain leaves the bridge

At about 4:30 p.m. the Captain left the bridge having instructed the Chief Navigator that the Pilot had changed the planned course and would manoeuvre the ship into Ship Cove. The cruise then carried on relatively uneventfully towards the outer Queen Charlotte Sound. However, after visiting Ship Cove Jamison took the ship out to the west of Motuara Island. Again this was an unusual course for a large ship like the Lermontov.

Captain Vorobyov justified leaving the bridge on the grounds that he had to change his wet clothes, yet he was still absent from the bridge over an hour later when the ship struck the rocks. He had instructed the Chief Navigator to call him when the ship reached Ship Cove. He was called at this time but merely acknowledged the call and did not return to the bridge. By informing the Chief Navigator that the Pilot had changed the planned course and would stay close to shore he had effectively handed control of the ship to the Pilot who now had a free reign in the navigation of the vessel.

The Captain’s decision to leave the bridge while the ship was in restricted waters was unusual. A captain has overall responsibility for the safety of the ship even with a pilot on board and under the Soviet system could expect to be held completely accountable. Another Ex-Soviet captain has commented that leaving the bridge under such circumstances would have been unthinkable to him.

By 5:10 p.m. the Lermontov had cleared Ship Cove and was on course to the open water beyond Cape Jackson. David Baker who at that time lived at the Cape Jackson Homestead recalled seeing the ship pass between Motuara Island and the mainland. He described it as a magnificent sight and unusual because they had never seen such a large ship taking that course before. As the ship passed North of Motuara Island it passed beyond the pilotage limit but it was still in the Queen Charlotte Harbour limits. The ship’s officers did not assume control and take an active role in the navigation of the ship other than to plot the ship’s progress. It was a decision they would later regret but understandable given that the ship was still in the Pilot’s local area. Of those who were on the bridge he should have been the best man to navigate the ship in that area. He was also the local Harbour Master and with the ship still within the harbour limits it could be argued that any navigational instructions he issued in this area were binding instructions to the crew.

Cape Jackson

At 5:21 p.m. Jamison ordered the first of three incremental course changes to port that would send the ship onto the rocks at Cape Jackson. Had this first new heading been maintained it would still have allowed the ship to safely clear the headland and the reef that extended out to Walker rock. Jamison had been giving a commentary on the ship’s public address system up to this point then said goodbye to the passengers. He hung up the microphone and told Second Mate Gusev he no longer required the P.A. Apparently the microphone may have been left on as some passengers reported hearing what sounded like an argument between Jamison and someone else on the bridge as the ship approached Cape Jackson.

At 5:30 p.m. when the ship was off Waihi Point, Jamison ordered a second turn to port, now heading the ship directly at the Cape Jackson Lighthouse. This change of course with only 7 minutes to run until the ship reached the lighthouse necessitated a further change of course within a very short period of time. In placing the ship on this course one assumes that Jamison had considered what he would do before reaching the lighthouse. The only reasonable order would have been a turn to starboard to clear the lighthouse and Walker Rock. The Cape Jackson inner channel ahead of the ship was clearly visible through the forward bridge windows and had been since the ship rounded Waihi Point.

Gusev indicated to Stepanishchev that the ship was heading towards danger. Stepanishchev questioned Jamison about his new course and was told he was going to show Cape Jackson to the passengers.

At 5:34 p.m. with the ship rapidly approaching the lighthouse Jamison made a sudden, spur of the moment decision and ordered a further turn to port committing the ship to a course through the Cape Jackson passage, rather than turning to starboard to clear the dangerous reef.

Second Mate Gusev told the Chief Navigator that he saw currents meeting in the area between Cape Jackson and the lighthouse. The Chief Navigator then asked Jamison whether the passage through there was possible. The Pilot answered with words to the effect that he intended to pass through there, that he knew that place, and that everything would be alright.

The Cape Jackson Lighthouse was almost directly ahead. The Pilot gave the command Port 10 and the ship moved to port towards the passage between the cape and the lighthouse. The ship entered the passage closer to the shore than to the lighthouse. The Pilot gave the order “midships” then “steady so.” As the ship approached the passage the approximate course was 325 degrees True.

The Chief Navigator was checking the distance from the cape on the radar and when the ship was 7 or 8 cables (almost a mile) off the cape, the ship was heading between the cape and the lighthouse. Even at full manoeuvring speed of fifteen knots there was still time to reconsider the decision to take the ship through the passage. The decision may have been made on the spur of the moment but obviously Jamison was happy to persist with this course.

Initially the Chief Navigator was not concerned about the Pilot’s intention to take the ship through the passage as he believed the assurances he had just been given about the safety of such a course. However as the ship neared the passage he noticed turbulent water indicating strong currents. Fearing these might push the ship off course he stood by the engine telegraphs ready to give split forward and astern commands to the engines to assist in maintaining the desired heading. The vessel did not appear to be affected by these tidal currents as it entered the passage and took the course the Pilot intended.

One of the passengers remembered looking out his cabin porthole and seeing the Cape Jackson Lighthouse with nothing behind it but open water. He thought it strange because a lighthouse usually marks an area of dangerous coast yet he could see no land. The reason the danger was not evident was because the ship was steaming right through the hazardous area rather than to seaward of it. Another passenger seeing white water ahead realised that the ship was heading into danger. “If we don’t hit those rocks I’ll eat my hat,” he thought.

Jamison was of the understanding that a depth of 10 to 12 meters existed in the passage close to Cape Jackson and if true this would have been sufficient for the Mikhail Lermontov’s 8.5 meter draught. He took the ship closer to Cape Jackson than the lighthouse, consistent with his previous manoeuvres that day taking the ship close to shore.


Assistant Harbour Master Gary Neill later spoke to Don Jamison about those final moments before the grounding. Jamison compared his mental state during this period as similar to falling asleep at the wheel of a car at night and drifting off into the gravel. Perhaps the long hours he had been working finally caught up with him and he simply forgot that he was on a 20,000 ton cruise liner with a draught of over 8 meters. In such a state of fatigue the possibility must also be considered that the effects of his earlier consumption of alcohol or his fall in Shakespeare Bay had further impaired his judgment.

At 5:37 p.m. the ship struck a rock close to Cape Jackson. A series of about three shocks was felt through the vessel lasting only two or three seconds. The ship struck approximately five and a half meters below the waterline on the port side, buckling the hull plates inward and shearing open a tear in the hull a further half meter below that. Such a depth corresponds with the depth of Hawea Rock at the time of impact about three hours before low tide at Cape Jackson. The Helmsman reported that the ship was thrown a little to the right, further indication that the impact was on the port side. He tried to steady the ship on its previous course.

The ship hit with a sudden jolt that sent wine glasses flying in the Bolshoi Lounge. One or two passengers were thrown from their feet by the totally unexpected impact.

Many witnesses felt that the shocks had come from the starboard side of the ship. Jamison thought the ship had struck on the starboard side about the vicinity of the bridge and continued as if the vessel ran over a sharp pinnacle, but since the shocks only lasted a few seconds this could not have been the case. The shock of a grounding along the bottom of the ship would have been felt for longer than two or three seconds.

Staff Captain Melnik who was in his cabin at the time of impact recalled that there were about three shocks from the direction of the bow. This is consistent with the damage to the port side of the hull. Almost immediately the vessel developed a list to starboard. That may seem strange given that the ship was holed on the port side but the vessel left Picton trimmed two degrees to starboard so water entering the ship would flow to the lower starboard side. The impact low down on the port side where the hull plates begin to curve under the ship may also have had the effect of throwing the ship over to starboard.

First Engineer Boris Alekseev was on duty in the Main Engine Room at the time of impact. It seemed to him that the shocks were coming from the area of the port bow back to the Auxiliary Engine Room.

Directly after the impact there was shocked silence on the bridge. Because the ship suffered only a glancing blow and had carried on through the channel the seriousness of the incident was not immediately apparent but there would certainly be some damage. Each senior officer on the bridge experienced the sinking feeling of knowing they were partly responsible and there would be hell to pay for such a blunder.

Why are we in this place?

The Russians claimed Jamison then ordered a further turn to port, although the Pilot himself could not recall giving such an order after the impact. The helmsman had attempted to correct the jolt to starboard and this action may have been misinterpreted by some as a further turn to port.

Alarmed officers began hurrying to the bridge. A large patch of dirty water could be seen astern marking the point of impact.

When the Captain returned to the bridge he was furious and immediately took control turning the ship to starboard and towards open water. He asked the Chief Navigator to explain why the ship was in its present position. The Chief Navigator replied that on the recommendation of the Pilot they had steered the ship between the cape and the lighthouse. The Captain asked if he had agreed to that and was told that the Pilot had insisted the passage was safe.

The Captain then asked the shocked and confused Pilot what had happened and received the reply: “I don’t know.” It was obvious that the ship had hit something but the extent of the damage was not yet known. It had been a glancing blow and there was some doubt that the hull had been penetrated. Usual practice when a submerged object had been hit would be the immediate closure of all watertight doors. However even before this could be done considerable amounts of water flooded from damaged compartments into adjacent ones.

Extent of flooding: Maximum possible extent of flooding in the four watertight compartments initially affected. It has never been explained why the compartment forward of the Auxiliary Engine Room flooded as it was well aft of the damaged area of the ship. Subsequent diver inspections suggest one or more watertight doors were open in the affected areas when the ship sank. (Illustration: Kevin Dekker)

Water pours in

Damage control parties were dispatched to assess the situation throughout the ship but no one had to tell crew members working in the Refrigerated Stores compartment on Deck 5 what had happened. Working directly above the impact point they heard the horrifying sound of rock on tortured metal and felt the deck below them flex upwards as the hull was severely deformed. The rocks opened up the water tanks on the deck directly below them, while lower still a line of dents ran along the double bottom, a kind of “crumple zone” designed to absorb just such impacts. The upper tank joints were no doubt ruptured as the hull buckled inwards and a loose access panel located in one of the tank tops may have added significantly to the amount of water flowing upwards into the dry compartments above.

Crew members in this area bolted for the nearest stairway to the higher decks, fearing that one of their number was still in the general area. Refrigeration Engineer Parvee Zagliadimov was last seen working in this area. When the impact occurred, heavy food laden trolleys intended for that night’s dinner rolled against the door he was seen to have entered, jamming it shut. Inflowing water also began building up against the door making it almost impossible for him to escape if he was still in that compartment.

A report came from the Engine Room that water was entering the Refrigerated Store followed by reports of flooding in the Laundry, Gymnasium, Refrigeration Machinery Compartment, and the Printing Room. The starboard ballast tanks and the swimming pool were pumped out in an attempt to reduce the list to starboard which quickly developed to about 10 degrees.

The Chief Engineer carried out an inspection of some of the affected areas. There was a continuous flow of water back into the Refrigeration Machinery Compartment from the Refrigerated Stores area, with sufficient strength to make closer inspection impossible. The bulkheads of the Refrigeration Machinery Compartment appeared to be intact so the flooding was originating forward of this point. The Chief Engineer reported that he closed the watertight door between the Refrigeration Machinery Compartment and the Air Conditioning Compartment on the starboard side of Deck 5 under local control, however Navy divers who later searched this area looking for the missing Refrigeration Engineer suggested this door was found open.

The fact that the Refrigeration Compartments on Deck 5 could be inspected several minutes after impact proves that the rate of flooding was not as great as some claims suggest. The rather fanciful figure of 63 tonnes per second has often been quoted as the initial rate of flooding. Nevertheless she was shipping water at an alarming rate.

The vessel is in danger of sinking

The bridge crew received reports that the Air Conditioning Room was dry but the Stabiliser Compartment below had about 1 metre of water in it. A pump with a capacity of 160 tonnes per hour was activated but this did not stop the water level from rising. At 5:43 p.m. the general alarm was sounded and the remaining watertight doors were finally ordered closed by remote control. It’s possible the 7 minute delay in taking this action allowed seawater to affect some of the electrical circuits before the order could be completed. This may explain why some of the doors on Deck 5 were later found open by Navy divers. While each watertight door could also be operated by a hydraulic hand pump, these were located at the doors themselves and would soon have been impossible to reach due to flooding. Emergency parties began checking for flooding in all compartments. Reports indicated that flooding was occurring rapidly in the Garage, Refrigeration Compartments, and the Stabiliser Compartment. This represented four watertight compartments. Referring to the ship’s damage control data, it was clear that if the flooding could not be controlled the ship was in danger of sinking. Some reports claim the vessel was only designed to stay afloat with any two compartments fully flooded. With the total amount of flooding now occurring the situation was serious. Captain Vorobyov realised he may have to beach his ship if he was going to save her. Vorobyov conferred with the Pilot as to the best position to beach the ship and they decided to head for Port Gore.

Passengers in the accommodation areas who were leaving their cabins shortly after the impact were suddenly confronted by watertight doors closing in their faces. Some experienced mild panic as their usual routes to the main stairways were cut off. In fact, there were stairways leading out of every watertight compartment but in some cases these were crew stairways that passengers were not familiar with. Most people who found themselves in this situation had to work out the exit route themselves or were helped by crew members. Many signs in the ship were in Russian or German only.

At 6:01 p.m. the following message was sent by Don Jamison using a VHF radio on the ship’s bridge:

“This is a Mayday situation. The Mikhail Lermontov. We have struck a rock at Cape Jackson, and we are proceeding into Port Gore. Would you please advise Wellington we will require emergency services. The vessel in danger of sinking. The vessel in danger of sinking. Making water. Proceeding into Port Gore. Over.”

It appears that Jamison made this call on his own initiative. Throughout the drama Jamison continued operating the VHF while the crew appeared totally disinterested in communicating with local authorities and rescue vessels. He found on several occasions that when he went to the port wing of the bridge to observe developments outside, calls were being made to the vessel on VHF which were not being answered. He therefore restricted his movements and tended to stay in the wheelhouse and within earshot of the VHF.

The rather informal Mayday message was acknowledged by Wellington radio who asked for confirmation but by 6:19 p.m. Jamison relayed a message from the ship’s Captain advising that no Mayday situation existed. Vorobyov recently denied that he instructed Jamison to cancel the Mayday but to the inquiry immediately after the sinking he stated unequivocally that, “at no stage did I give permission to send a Mayday or any other distress signal by VHF or any other radio communication.”

It seemed inexplicable not to send a distress or Urgency message under the circumstances. The Captain apparently knew that four watertight compartments were flooding and the vessel could not stay afloat indefinitely. Even if the ship was not in immediate danger of sinking, she was known to be badly holed and passengers would require evacuating. The cruise could not continue until the damage had been repaired. The bizarre behaviour of the Russian Captain was to continue on through the night as his lack of decisive action conspired to make a serious but manageable situation far worse.

If they have offered help, then why don’t you accept?

While it was true that Jamison had been responsible for the decision to take the ship through the Cape Jackson passage, he now began fighting a lone battle among those on the bridge to take rational steps to save or evacuate the ship in good time. Captain Vorobyov appeared to be in a state of denial regarding the seriousness of the situation. Time and again he refused to request assistance, to accept offers of assistance from vessels nearby, or to take the necessary steps to save his ship as the opportunity presented itself. Local fishing boat skippers were given the impression that their presence was not required or appreciated.

The failure to declare and maintain an emergency situation caused delays in the rescue operation and could have cost lives. Luckily many of the local ship captains and fishing boat skippers decided on their own initiative to head into Port Gore. This was in no small part due to the Baker family who operated Cape Jackson Radio and were able to observe the drama as it unfolded. They correctly assessed that assistance would be required at some stage and called a number of local boats to head towards Port Gore despite messages from the ship indicating “no assistance required.”

The Russian Captain had a full complement of trained radio operators and other English speaking officers at his disposal who could have operated the radios. It was a vital task under the circumstances and it seems strange that Vorobyov was prepared to let Jamison take responsibility for VHF radio communication after all that had happened. Bridge staff on the Mikhail Lermontov knew that soon after 6:20 p.m. the rail ferry Arahura, the best potential rescue vessel in the area, had turned away from the scene. The CTC cruise secretary was overheard shouting over the phone to someone on the bridge, “if they have offered help then why don’t you accept?”

Without knowing the exact extent of the damage it seems incredible that a message claiming “no assistance required” was sent, especially with in excess of 400 passengers on board. Normally this message could only have been contemplated if the Captain was sure the ship was in a stable condition and not in immediate danger of sinking. Photographs taken on the night by fisherman Mike Harris seem to verify that the vessel did maintain a fairly constant trim from a time shortly after she struck rocks at Cape Jackson until she beached in the South East corner of Port Gore. At 6:30 p.m. the interisland ferry Arahura which had diverted to Port Gore to assist was instructed to continue on her original course to Picton. This decision delayed the rescue of the passengers. Had the Arahura been on the scene hours earlier and in daylight, the passengers could have been evacuated in an orderly fashion and the liner possibly towed to safety.

A member of the cruise staff called the bridge to ask what was going on. He received the rather improbable explanation from the Navigator that the ship had hit a submarine! While a ship’s crew sometimes downplayed the seriousness of an emergency to avoid panic, this response was hardly reassuring. If it was a belief held with any conviction by the Russian Officers it illustrated a high degree of paranoia and might help explain why they were so reticent to ask for further help from “Westerners.”

Meanwhile the Mikhail Lermontov’s radio operators set to work establishing contact with Vladisvostok and the Soviet Embassy in New Zealand. They ignored local authorities who tried to establish contact with the ship on HF and MF frequencies. The VHF circuits were becoming very difficult to use due to the amount of traffic and the local terrain. The Russian operators did not appear to understand English when advised on the best frequencies to use for working with local authorities. This seems strange given that the ship was operating in a part of the world where English would be the main language used by marine radio stations. Many of the ship’s officers were fluent in English so there must be some doubt that the Russian crew made any real effort to cooperate with the local rescue effort. A frustrated Rescue Coordination Centre in Wellington would have appreciated a phone call direct from the Russian Captain telling them exactly what the situation was. The ship had a Satellite Phone system, but this was used only to inform Soviet officials of the situation when they couldn’t possibly assist.

Time and again throughout the night the Russian crew members appeared to understand and speak English quite well when spoken to casually, but when given instructions by anyone other than their own officers they conveniently acted as though they could not understand what was being said.

Tarihiko Decides to Take a Look at the Situation

The bulk LPG carrier Tarihiko which responded to the initial Mayday and was steaming towards Port Gore also received the “no assistance required” message but decided to continue to the scene anyway. Her crew would spend a frustrating night standing by the Russian ship and offering assistance only to be repeatedly told they were not required.

On the liner, passengers were generally confused and unsure of what they should be doing. Initially there were few announcements in English over the public address system. Those who asked crew members got little information from them. CTC staff members were in the unenviable position of having to field passengers’ questions when they themselves had been told nothing.

Eventually an announcement was made in the Bolshoi Lounge to the effect that the ship had hit rocks and would have to head to the shore. The passengers were asked whether the show should continue. In the best show business tradition they all said “the show must go on!”, but musicians began to experience difficulty keeping the entertainment going as the list increased and the band’s equipment began sliding across the stage. Despite the confusion, many did not believe the ship was actually in danger of sinking and the gravity of the situation was taking some time to register.

Cruise Director Peter Warren was asked to make public announcements in English. One of the first announcements the passengers received was along the lines of, “there has been a slight water intrusion in the lower decks but we have a good captain and crew and they have the situation in hand.”

However, passengers using the forward passenger stairway noticed an ominous sight. When they looked down the centre of the stairwell they could see water swirling in the lower deck levels beneath them. The crew tried unsuccessfully to rig a tarpaulin to hide this from view.

Pilot Jamison called Picton Harbour radio for advice on the best place to beach the ship. Despite difficulties with radio reception a reply was eventually received advising the South East corner of Port Gore.

Struggling into Port Gore

The vessel had bled off much of her original 15 knots of speed during the various turns she had undertaken immediately after the grounding and with so much water onboard was now sluggish.

The run towards the beach in Port Gore was very slow and difficulty was experienced in keeping the ship on a constant heading. This may have been partly due to a large section of bilge keel that had been torn from the ship and now hung at right angles across the bottom of the hull. On deck, lifeboats and other survival equipment were being prepared for use. The condition of this equipment would later become quite controversial. As the ship struggled towards the safety of shallow water a southerly head wind increased the starboard list and forced the speed to be kept down.

According to the Russian account, from about 7:00 p.m. water began entering the main Switchboard Compartment from a three metre long crack in the forward bulkhead. It seems doubtful that an isolated crack this large could occur in a major reinforced watertight bulkhead so far from the damaged area of the ship because the impact of the grounding was not reported as being particularly severe. If such flooding did occur, it seems more likely that holes left in the bulkhead during ongoing maintenance were the real reason. Ian Lockley, a senior member of the salvage team removing oil from the ship, recalled someone on his dive team noting just such problems in the bulkhead forward of the switchboard. The ship’s crew claimed that the flow developed into a torrent that sprayed both sides of the split switchboard. Either side could power the ship independently but now both sides were in danger of being disabled.

The bridge was apparently warned of the danger, so the crew must have known how important it was to plug this crack or deflect water away from the switchboard. There was an access passage behind the switchboard and it seems strange that a well trained and determined crew could not prevent the total loss of electrical power as claimed. The water level at this time would have resulted in a maximum pressure of only 5.5 psi at the position of the crack. Captain Vorobyov ordered speed increased in an attempt to get to the beach in less time but this also increased the rate of flooding, so the ship’s speed was reduced again.

Power and main engine operation is lost

At 7:15 p.m. electrical power reportedly failed at the main switchboard and main engine operation was lost. The emergency generator activated automatically but was not capable of supporting main engine operation. Main lighting failed but some backup lighting was powered by the emergency generator. A radio message from the ship at 7:19 p.m. indicated they were running the ship onto the beach.

At about 7:35 p.m. Wellington received the following message from Mikhail Lermontov: “Present situation is that we have a list of about 12 degrees. We have lost main engines. We were in the process of beaching at the head of Port Gore. We are still drifting slowly in towards the beach and are about six lengths off the beach.”

Weather at the time was South Easterly wind of 25 knots, moderate rain, visibility of 2 to 3 miles, and choppy seas.

The vessel beaches in Port Gore

After the loss of power the vessel continued to drift until she grounded close to the beach. The Pilot claimed there was a light grounding and other passengers and crew reported a gentle bump at that time. The passengers had been instructed to brace themselves for the beaching, but when it happened it was so gentle that many did not even realise that they were aground. Photographs taken of the ship at this time support the pilot’s claim that the ship came to rest about one ship length, 176 metres, from the shore. A subsequent divers’ inspection of the seabed in the same spot also confirmed that she had beached successfully. At the expected location a large furrow in the sand caused by the bow of the ship was found. The bow shows signs of a low speed impact presumably occurring when the thin forward section penetrated the soft seabed down to bedrock. This would also explain the slight bump reported by some, as a low speed grounding into soft sand at a speed of only a few knots would have been so gentle and gradual as to have been undetected by those aboard.

At 7:42 p.m. the following message from the ship confirmed the beaching: “We are neatly aground at the head of Port Gore and we are now starting to, ah… …they’ll be disembarking the passengers and putting them ashore. Arrangements will need to be made to uplift the passengers from the shore at Port Gore over.”

Russian crew statements to the inquiry contradict this evidence. They stated the ship never came closer than eight cables, or 1.4 km, to the shore. This estimate appears to be a deliberate exaggeration perhaps designed to avoid the obvious question; why weren’t the anchors dropped once the ship beached? Had this action been taken the ship would almost certainly have been saved. Apparently Jamison suggested this course of action but Captain Vorobyov ignored him.

Further evidence to support the claim that the ship was beached close to shore was available from passengers and the skippers of the small local fishing vessels on the scene, none of whom were required to give evidence at the Preliminary Inquiry. At least one local skipper present did not believe the ship had beached because he thought she was still settling and the tide was going out. He therefore concluded that if she had beached she would have settled firmly on the sea bed. In fact, the ship appeared to be maintaining a constant trim at this time and the tide was within two hours of low water and ebbing very slowly so the ship was able to float off again under the action of the South-West wind.

Captain Reedman of the Tarihiko also stated that when they first sighted the Mikhail Lermontov she was “very close inshore” and “aground or nearly aground,” a description that hardly supports the crew claim of being not closer than 1.4 km to the shore. If that assessment had been correct, it would have placed the ship out in the middle of the bay.

Captain Vorobyov estimated that the ship would stay afloat for two more hours and claimed he did not drop the anchors because he hoped that the ship would drift into shallower waters off Gannet Point.

An alternative explanation offered for the failure to lower the anchors was that Vorobyov feared passengers would panic and try swimming to the nearby shoreline. But they had shown no signs of panic up to that point and would have been spared the worst of their ordeal had the ship been anchored on the beach and prevented from sinking in deep water. One cruise staff member commented that most of the passengers were so old they couldn’t have panicked if they’d wanted to!

Other accounts suggest that Vorobyov knew the ship was beached but thought the incoming tide would carry her in even further, however it is extremely doubtful that she would have got any closer to shore than where she initially beached. No satisfactory explanation has ever been forthcoming for the failure to lower the anchors while the ship was on the beach. As Vorobyov hesitated, one of the last opportunities to save the ship was slipping away.

Watertight doors begin to fail

According to the crew account, watertight doors were “sprung” shortly after the ship left the beach and the list increased. Various sources suggest that the list of the ship or the pressure of flood water caused the opening of watertight doors at this time. Both explanations seem unlikely however as watertight doors are designed to close and remain sealed even under the adverse conditions existing in a damaged ship. It’s possible that the Russian accounts refer instead to cracking and failure of bulkheads and frames around the doors, but this portion of their account lacks detail and was never clarified during the Preliminary Inquiry that was to follow. Flooding had by then occurred as far back as the forward bulkhead of the Auxiliary Engine Room, so presumably it was a watertight door in this bulkhead that was referred to as failing. In fact the engine rooms had supposedly been evacuated at 7:30 p.m. in a dry state, so it is hard to understand who could have reported their failure. No questions were asked at the inquiry regarding this point and no further clarification has been forthcoming.

By 7:41 p.m. a radio message from Tarihiko requested assistance from all ships in the area indicating that the seriousness of the situation was now fully understood. Incredibly, the Mikhail Lermontov had still failed to declare an emergency herself.

At about this time, a radio message from Mikhail Lermontov stated passengers were being put ashore 200 metres east of her position by a homestead on the shore. This message again suggests that the ship was close to shore rather than 1.4 km from the beach.

An attempt was made to land some passengers using one of the ship’s tenders but this had to be abandoned due to the gently sloping beach which would force the elderly passengers to disembark some distance from the shore and then be required to wade or be carried in.

If he makes up his mind before dark it will be helpful

Shortly after, Vorobyov requested a tug from Wellington. Time to scene would have been four hours, far too late to be of assistance. The Mikhail Lermontov also advises Tarihiko that they do not wish to use the Tarihiko’s lifeboats. Tarahiko advises Wellington Radio that the Mikhail Lermontov is refusing any offers of assistance for her passengers. The Captain of the Tarihiko advises Mikhail Lermontov they will stand by with lifeboats ready for rescue work anyway and at 8:19 p.m. Wellington Radio requests Tarihiko to pick up passengers. About this time there is a rather comic exchange of signals as Wellington makes futile efforts to get the Mikhail Lermontov’s radio operators to use other channels. The Russian radio operators do not appear to understand simple instructions in English. Jamison also talks on VHF with the increasingly impatient Captain of the Tarahiko who wants to know when the Russian Captain will decide what he wants done, and “if he makes up his mind before it gets dark it will be helpful.” Tempers were beginning to fray on the bridge of the Mikhail Lermontov as Jamison describes the Russian Captain as “getting a bit short.”

At 8:35 p.m. Jamison relays a request to Tarihiko to push the Mikhail Lermontov further into the bay. This request was turned down because the Tarihiko was a gas carrier and any collision could have sparked an explosion. Even with a high degree of control, ship on ship contact would almost certainly have resulted in serious damage to both ships. Such a procedure is not usually attempted even in an emergency and certainly not with a laden gas carrier.

Up to this point passengers had been told very little and rumours spread through the ship. Some passengers went to their lifeboat stations outside but were told to wait inside. By 8:30 p.m. the decision had finally been made to abandon ship.

Passengers attempting to return to their cabins to retrieve valued belongings and passports had a frightening ordeal feeling their way around darkened corridors as the ship’s electrical system began to fail.

A few hours earlier I had been readying for work, and now this…

Australian Entertainer Ken Tweddle recalled, “The biggest problem was that it was getting dark and the ship was leaning over a lot by now. I remember one lady started screaming across the room that her husband was having an epileptic fit and was going to die if nothing was done. I managed to get to them, as I seemed to be the only staff member around, and remember thinking “what is going on here?” It hit me all of a sudden that a few hours earlier I had been having a shower readying for work, and now this! I had heard somewhere that you had to make sure they didn’t swallow their tongue so I made sure he was lying on his back and forced his jaws open. His wife gave me a tablet and told me to put it under his tongue after which he seemed to lie still and breathe calmly. His wife was in quite a state as you can imagine.”

If you don’t come with me now you will die here

“We began herding passengers aft and starboard as the ship had begun to get front heavy. They didn’t seem to understand the danger they were in. I had to shout at more than one old dear who wanted to go back to their cabin to retrieve their purse, “if you don’t come with me now you will die here,” which I have to admit did the trick. It struck me that if you show calm and confidence in a situation in which you have no idea what to do people will want to believe that you do know what you’re doing. So it’s getting darker, light is coming in through windows (probably lights from the ferry Arahura) and we continue to move them back and up and sideways. The problems start when you have to get them up the stairs which due to the list are twice as steep as they would normally be. The Russian crew were waiting at the exits and had tied rope with knots to metal posts that fitted into sockets bolted to the floor. The trick was to get the old dears standing in front of you, grabbing the rope in front of them, and pull the two of you up the stairs. This was working fine until halfway up one such trip the post came out of it’s socket sending us back down the stairs into what was now a flooded bulkhead. We both ended up under water. When we managed to surface I was confronted by the most bizarre sight I had ever seen. The post had gone into her knee and smashed it. She could have sucked her own toes, her foot was literally in her mouth bent straight up in the air. We both stared at it in disbelief. She began to vomit, so here we both were, relative strangers covered in blood, vomit and salt water. Not the best first date but definitely unforgettable! I got her to the top of the stairs somehow and the Russians got her into the lifeboat. There were times during all of this that I thought I was going to die there, the ship would let out a groan and shudder and I could see myself floating there forever. It’s now seventeen years later but I can still feel it as vividly as if it were happening now.”

At least one lifeboat was launched in the conventional manner by loading passengers at the Boat Deck level, however much difficulty was experienced in getting the boats away fully loaded against the side of the listing ship, so the decision was made to lower the boats empty and have passengers embark from the side doors on Deck H. This decision resulted in a painfully slow evacuation that was only just completed before the ship sank. Deficiencies in the life saving equipment identified by Ministry of Transport inspectors after the sinking suggested there was little evidence of regular maintenance or drills carried out using the ship’s boats, but cruise staff did recall lifeboats being launched and motors run regularly in the six months leading up to the sinking. Of course, it’s not possible to practice the launching of lifeboats with the ship listing twenty degrees or more and this added complication was the main reason for the decision to load the lifeboats once they were in the water.

Passengers were instructed to proceed to Deck H to embark the life boats. This was not an announcement greeted with any enthusiasm as the last thing they wanted to do was go back inside a dark, badly listing ship that was now obviously sinking. This fear turned out to be fully justified for a group of passengers who in the confusion were led deep inside the ship but apparently to the wrong area. They were then taken back another way by a Russian crew member and up a stairway that should have led back out to Promenade Deck. Incredibly the door at the top of the stairs was locked, an amazing situation because with watertight doors closed every stairway was effectively an emergency exit and should have been clear. The passengers were told to wait and the crew member disappeared. Many old and frail passengers were left in this darkened stairwell for quite some time. The air grew stale and they were terrified to discover that water was now rising up behind them. They were trapped and had no idea if anyone knew where they were. As the list of the ship increased, the angle of the stairway grew steeper until it was almost vertical. Exhausted passengers began loosing their grip and some suffered serious injuries as they fell. Eventually someone in the crew found a key and unlocked the door, one that should never have been locked in the first place. By the time they were freed, these passengers had to negotiate a steeply sloping deck and scramble down rope ladders to safety.

Some passengers recounted the experience of walking down long corridors on Deck H indicating that the watertight doors on this deck had been opened to allow passengers to reach the main embarkation doors. It appears these doors were not closed before the ship sank and this would have accelerated the final stages of the sinking. As it was claimed people were still leaving the ship only minutes before she sank, this was also a potentially serious oversight by the crew.

I don’t like the look of the situation

At 8:38 p.m. the Tarihiko anchored about 800 metres from Mikhail Lermontov and by 8:52 p.m. had launched her port lifeboat to assist with passenger transfer. Choppy conditions made working in the small boats quite difficult. Shortly after at 8:56 p.m. it was noticed that the blacked out Mikhail Lermontov was drifting towards the Tarihiko, which began raising her anchors ready to take evasive action. In the meantime a Russian lifeboat drew up alongside the Tarihiko and began transferring passengers but this was interrupted at 9:08 p.m. and the Tarihiko had to move to avoid the drifting liner. Radio traffic around this time confirms that the Mikhail Lermontov was initially aground but had drifted off the beach and was moving into deeper water, “the Captain says to confirm that we have actually drifted off the beach, and at the moment are further off shore than we originally were.”

Once more of the crucial watertight doors within the ship had opened she was effectively doomed. The previously stable condition of the vessel was rapidly deteriorating. On the radio, Don Jamison was heard to admit, “I don’t like the look of the situation.”

At 9:00 p.m. the Navy patrol boat Taupo, which was by then heading to the scene offered to act as a tug if required, with 3000 SHP at her disposal. This suggestion was accepted but she was not to arrive until just after 10:00 p.m. when it was already too late to save the ship.

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© All content copyright Pete Mesley.