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The Last Cruise of the Mikhail Lermontov

1986 was an unusually tragic year in the annals of the Russian merchant marine; on the 31st of August the 549 foot veteran liner, Admiral Nakhimov claimed 425 lives when she sank in eight minutes after colliding with a bulk carrier in the Black Sea. Eight months earlier, with the loss of only one life, the nation's most luxurious cruise liner became one of the largest and most accessible diving wrecks of the modern era.

Arriving at Fremantle December 13th, 1985

Displacement:     10,742 net registered tons, 20,027 gross tons
Builders:     V.E.B. Mathias-Thesen Werft, Wismar, in the former German Democratic Republic
Launched:     18 March, 1972
Length:     155 metres or 578 feet
Beam:     23.6 metres or 77 feet
Draft:     8.3 metres or 27 feet
Machinery:     Sulzer Diesels, twin screw
Cruising speed:     21knots.
Owners:     Baltic Shipping Company
Port of Registry:     Leningrad
Passengers:     700 one class

In 1964 Mathias-Thesen Werft delivered the first of the five liners to be named after Russian writers; the Ivan Franko (above). The largest passenger ship built for the Russian passenger fleet thus far, she was followed in 1965 by the Alexander Pushkin, which in turn was followed in 1967 by the Taras Shevchenko. The last two units of this class were the Shota Rustaveli and finally the Mikhail Lermontov, which entered service in 1973. She was designed for both cruise service and line voyages and was named after Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov, the Russian novelist and poet who died during a duel at the age of 27.

48 inch plastic model, circa 1973.

On the 28th of May, 1973 the Mikhail Lermontov departed Leningrad on her maiden voyage and after calls at Bremerhaven London and Le Havre, she proceeded to New York, arriving on the 11th of June, becoming the first Russian liner to call there in twenty five years. She continued to serve New York during the Summers, with Winters spent cruising out of European ports. In 1980 President Reagan retaliated against the Russians for their invasion of Afghanistan by banning of all Soviet ships entering US waters and the Mikhail Lermontov was switched to cruising out of Europe.


Above: the Bolshoi Lounge.


Left: the Neptun Bar, right: sitting room of a suite.


Left: aft boat deck and crane (the aft hatch cover can be seen to the left of the picture and fits flush with the deck).
This is a reasonably old pic as the lifeboat in the background has yet to be replaced by one of the two large enclosed launches carried at the time she sank.


Left: the Leningrad Restaurant.  Right: the Gymnasium near the stern of the ship.  There was also a sauna, spa, and massage rooms in this complex.
The windows in the picture now have their glass removed, making this an easy spot for divers to visit.

Right: one of the three spiral staircases in the vessel. These provided the main passenger access between decks and all three originally ran through almost every deck in the ship with passenger accommodation or 'public' space. Crew stairways often ran in parallel behind a wall at the back of these stairways. When the watertight doors closed, some passengers would have been isolated from the passenger stairways they were familiar with and would have been forced to locate the crew stairways to get to the higher decks.

Considering the date when the Mikhail Lermontov was completed, more than half her cabins were without modern facilities. To make her more suitable for cruising the Soviets spent US$15 million on her in 1982 to bring her up to a competitive standard. All the cabins were fitted with private facilities, the public rooms and spaces were lavishly redecorated and the exterior was painted white.


Left: Arriving at Wellington. Right: Berthed at the Overseas Passenger Terminal

Under the command of a relief Master; Captain Vladislav Vorobyev, she left Sydney on the 6th of February 1986 for what was billed as a "two week cruise of a lifetime". She visited Auckland and Tauranga on the North Island before arriving at the capital city of Wellington on the morning of Saturday, the 15th of February 1986. At midnight she departed to cross the treacherous Cook Strait for Picton at the head of the Queen Charlotte Sound on the Northern coast of the South Island.

Picton had been a regular port of call for cruise liners since P&O's 29,871 ton Arcadia visited in November 1959 and the Mikhail Lermontov berthed at the Waitohi wharf at 8 a.m. the following morning and departed at 3 p.m. for Milford Sound on the South-west coast of the South Island. Captain Don Jamison, a Marlborough Sounds harbour pilot was to remain aboard the vessel instead of leaving her at Long Island, so that he could be available to pilot the vessel into Milford Sound.


Berthed at Picton on her last day.

743 people were on board. Of the 372 passengers, 327 were Australians including 5 children, 36 British, 6 Americans, 2 Germans, and one New Zealander. Of the 348 crew members, 330 were Russian and 18 British staff. Another 9 were Australians and 13 were British CTC staff members in transit. The weather was overcast with heavy rain and a 25 knot Southerly wind.

Most passengers were not interested in peering through the murk at the beached hulk of the Edwin Fox, the last surviving Australian convict ship and reported hearing an announcement shortly before 6 pm that the pilot had handed over his responsibility to the Captain.


Passengers reported that the ship had gone between the Light-house and the end of Cape Jackson (above) instead of clearing the rocky reef which extended past Walker Rock and was clearly shown on the charts. The vessel was drawing about 27 feet and Captain Jamison claimed his understanding of the depth in the channel to be 35 to 40 feet. It can be seen from the above chart that there was ample room for the Mikhail Lermontov to have passed through the channel had she missed the major rock pinnacles. However it would have been a very foolhardy course to take for anyone aware of the presence of the rocks.

About 5.37 p.m. there was a thud and the ship started to list as the sea flooded through a 40 foot long gash in the hull, penetrating three water-tight bulkheads. The water short-circuited the electrical system, thereby stopping the engines. It is reputed that at 6.03 pm a Mayday call was broadcast, but this is disputed by local VHF operators. Presumably, because of language problems, no announcements were made to passengers to advise them of the position and tell them what to do, although many passengers were alerted to the problem by the fact that the crew were wearing life-jackets. In the meantime there was an announcement that dinner would be delayed an hour and the wine tasting session that was in progress would be extended. The band continued to play, but the wine tasting stopped when the list sent glasses sliding off the tables.

The L.P.G. Tanker Tarihiko turned towards the scene on receiving the Mayday call, but a signal that no further assistance would be required was received. Nevertheless Captain Reedman decided to press on. In gathering darkness the Tarihiko arrived as passengers were being evacuated into rafts and ship's boats from 8.45 p.m. Many elderly people were hurt in their leap from the ship to the lifeboats.

The Russian captain had endeavoured to beach his ship, but without the assistance of engines this manoeuvre was unsuccessful, and the ship, by now down at the bow and listing, floated towards Gannet Point in Port Gore. The sea was choppy but not rough and the Tarihiko was able to get her boats to the stricken ship. 356 passengers and 164 Russian crew crowded every inch of space in the LPG ships quarters, eventually to be deposited at the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Wellington in the early hours of the following morning.

In the meantime the locals declared a Mayday situation and twenty-three Marlborough Sounds small craft had arrived and were patrolling the area in the gathering darkness. The Wellington to Picton vehicular ferry Arahura of 9,000 tons under the command of Captain Brew, had been diverted to the scene and arrived at 9.30 p.m. Many of the ship's passengers were transferred from rafts and boats to the ferry. HMNZS Taupo commanded by Lieutenant Batcheler, arrived in time to check out the area and arrange for the shoreline to be searched. It was dark and raining heavily and there was great difficulty in penetrating the darkness with the ship's search-lights. Nevertheless they struggled through the night, searching the area to locate lost people in the water, on rafts or in lifeboats that may have been swept away in the wind and with the tide.

The crippled liner took on a 12° list and drifted into Port Gore where Captain Vorobyev tried to beach his ship. At 10.15 pm she was listing 40° to starboard and at 10.27 pm she foundered in 15 fathoms, sinking by the bow and laying over on her port side by Gannet Point near to Mr. John Harvey's Port Gore property. One unfortunate 33 year old engineer crew member was presumed to have gone down with the ship.

The noise was deafening when the Mikhail Lermontov sank to the bottom of Port Gore, 35 miles from Picton. As the bow gradually sank down in the sea the stern rose higher. The bow hit the seabed, the stern settled and she rolled on her side beneath the surface. Bubbles more than six feet high belched from the sea, and anything loose on the ship shot to the surface, leapt into the air and then smacked down on the surface of the water. The haunting sounds reverberating from the bowels of the ship were never forgotten.

"It was an amazing experience seeing a ship go down. The crashing, banging, hissing, roaring - it was deafening. Then it died. Nothing. Quiet."

All night debris from the ship was being picked up and the next morning nature had dressed Port Gore in a perfect Summer's day. The water above the liner was a seething mass of little bubbles and looked just like Soda water. A scum lay over the surface and hundreds of deck chairs floated around the bay. The surface of the water was covered with anything off the ship that could float, and many homes in the Sounds had wooden-slatted chairs on their sun-decks and balconies for the next few years.

There was a lot of criticism of the state of the lifesaving equipment carried on the Mikhail Lermontov. Many of the locals towed in lifeboats. They saw for themselves.

It was reported that in many of the lifeboats bilge pumps were inoperative. They were seized up and had handles missing. There was a radio shack in the bow of one, but it had a hole, one and a half inches by three-eighths of an inch, where battery acid had leaked and eaten through the Aluminium. One of the enclosed boats had the exhaust disconnected from the hull and the exhaust discharged into the interior. Many of the life-jackets picked up in Port Gore fell to pieces, the fabric covering them was so rotten. Water containers in the lifeboats had holes in them, and in some of the lifeboats they'd been painted in place. It was hard to find one in good condition."

With all this in front of their eyes, those involved closely in the rescue were stunned when the statement from the Minister of Transport, Richard Prebble, was released. "Allegations made subsequently concerning deficiencies in the Lermontov's lifesaving appliances, have not been borne out by the evidence presented to the inquiry"

Passengers and crew arrived ashore next morning at Wellington, having lost all of their possessions but thankful not to have shared the fate of the Russian engineer. One elderly Australian was lucky to be alive, having fallen from a raft and spent two hours in the water before being discovered by launches towing abandoned lifeboats back to Picton.

Kevin Dekker's model of the sinking liner


Left: the swimming pool, the roof slid forward to provide fresh air. This is an old shot, the glass roof was subsequently shortened and the roof no longer had the room to move forward. Right: the final moments at 10.45 p.m.

Immediately after she sank divers were at work ensuring that any oil leaks were stopped and were then employed to recover the ship's safes and the Gold content of the duty free store for the owners.  Shortly thereafter a second crew moved in to remove the environmental threat posed by the oil still on board the wreck and sixteen hundred tonnes of fuel and lubricants were removed.

Engine Room

Of the four deaths associated with this wreck, three were of recreational divers. Only two of the bodies have been recovered (one after several months).  Presumably the other two are still somewhere in the vastness of the hull.


The Nevsky Bar

Below: approximate location of damage to the Port side of hull.   The impact points are dents only, the hull distorted inwards but was not penetrated at these points.  The tears, which are no more than 150mm wide at any point, occurred where the inward pressure caused the hull plates to fail near the joint with the bottom plates.  The first impact point was 10.3 metres aft of the bow thruster, with the first tear starting 2.15 metres behind that.  The main series of tears starts about 18 metres aft of the bow thruster and runs for 11 meters.  The tears opened the double bottom to the sea and did not prevent further flooding because the upper plating was damaged by the distortion caused on impact.  The vertical lines show the position of water tight bulkheads, the numbers above them being the frame numbers of their location.  Note that three watertight compartments have been holed to varying degrees.

The bulkhead at frame 106 developed a crack which led to the electrical power being short circuited and the engines losing power.  This ultimately sealed the fate of the ship since she could not then be run aground. It is unclear why this compartment flooded since it is well aft of the damaged areas.  However the shock of impact may have distorted the frames of the watertight doors, preventing correct sealing off from the forward compartments.  The crack in bulkhead 106 may also have been caused due to the transmitted shock of impact.  The initial point of impact just forward of the bulkhead at frame 154 would have been very stiff due to the three way intersection of hull, bulkhead and double bottom.  Rather than having any 'give' at this point, the hull would have transmitted the massive force of impact around the ship, possibly causing considerable secondary damage.

The bilge keel was torn from the hull from it's forward attachment point to slightly aft of the hull damage, then bent down and under the hull. It now forms a big horizontal strip of metal at right angles to the hull, and this could be the reason for the difficulty the crew experienced in steering the ship on a straight course after the impact.

The mystery as to why the vessel took this narrow and extremely dangerous passage remains to this day.  Some people believe that she struck well before reaching Cape Jackson and was taken through that particular passage in a desperate attempt to get her to safety before she sank.

On March 6th 1986, the findings of the New Zealand Government Preliminary Marine Enquiry were released;

1. The New Zealand pilot was responsible for the accident. He was on the bridge and in the absence of the Russian Captain, he took the ship between Cape Jackson and the lighthouse - a route normally only used by small craft.

2. The Russian crew are praised for their efforts in saving all the passengers.

3. The lifesaving equipment on the ship was adequate.

A Marlborough Harbour Board statement declared that the pilot was on leave and was employed by the shipping company's agents at the time of the accident, the Harbour Board's responsibility finishing at Long Island.  The Marine Enquiry Chairman however, said that the pilot was employed by the Harbour Board.  Insurance payments, costs for raising and disposing of the wreck now appeared to be a matter of considerable litigation with a reported one hundred million dollars at stake.

The foremast - tower now makes a fascinating dive, covered as it is in platforms, radar antennae, ladders, a lookout, and a massive search light.

The Russians conducted their own enquiry and blamed the New Zealand pilot; Captain Don Jamison (the Marlbourough Harbour Master, Pilot and Acting General Manager), for taking a route where there were no indications of depth were shown on the chart.  The New Zealand government counter-charged that the charts were more than adequate and that Captain Jamison had returned control of the ship to the Master well before she struck, however a governmental suppression of the enquiry evidence has left many questions unanswered.

Hydrographic Sonogram of the wreck

The vessel is now lying in Port Gore in approximately 37 meters of water although this varies with the tide and is on an approximate 10 degree slope. The Port bridge wing is only about 12 meters below the surface. Bottom visibility varies greatly from fifteen to sixty feet, depending mainly on the amount of recent rainfall in the area. A wreck buoy is connected by Manila rope and then 10 metres of chain to a bollard inside the promenade deck. The wreck is massive and still fully intact, but a lot of her fittings and contents have been removed by recreational divers.

"The stabiliser looks like a fine piece of Scottish engineering, of almost aviation industry standard.  On close inspection it can be seen to rotate forward and hide in a fore-aft slot when not in use.  Once deployed, it can also swivel around the lateral axis to change the angle of attack.  It is obviously a magnificent machine, that much is evident even through the dust and marine growth."

Below: two drawings from Kevin Dekker's proposed book on the Mikhail Lermontov from a diver's perspective.  They show the vessel as she appears lying on her Starboard side on the sand and silt sea bed.  Kevin would be pleased to hear from anyone who could assist with further information or images relating to the liner.  

Lounge Deck

Promenade Deck

Restaurant Deck

2001     September 12     Captain Don Jamison, the New Zealand pilot aboard the Russian cruise liner, has retired.  He has never spoken of the night the vessel struck a rock and sank. He had worked for the local harbour board for sixteen years before he and his wife joined the liner.  Within a few hours of departing Picton, and after three close calls which took the ship perilously close to the shoreline, Captain Jamison made the fatal decision to take the Lermontov through a passage which had never been used by ships of its size.  More recently, he had been working for freight company; Strait Shipping for the past 10 years.  Sheryl Mateni, the company's commercial manager, said "Captain Jamison had made a huge contribution during his time with the company.  His skills, knowledge and professionalism in his role as a master of the freight vessels Suilven and Straitsman would be missed."  Captain Jamison came to New Zealand from Sheffield, England.  He was appointed Picton harbourmaster in August 1970 from Bluff, where he had been a pilot with the Southland Harbour Board for three years.  Before that he had been at sea for 17 years, mostly on the United Kingdom to Australia run. He had also been an executive officer with the Crusader Line on the NZ to Japan route.


Grzelewski, Derek: The Last Cruise of the Mikhail Lermontov. Auckland: New Zealand Geographic Magazine Number 42, April - June (published quarterly) 22 page illustrated article.

Guerin, Michael: The Mikhail Lermontov Enigma. Blenheim, New Zealand: Chartwell Untermehmen, 1998. 131 pp. ISBN 0-473-05331-4.

Heberley, Heather: Weather Permitting; an autobiography. Whatamango Bay, Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand: Cape Catley Ltd., 1996. 222 pp. Illustrated. ISBN 0-908561-49-0.

McLeod, Rosemary: The Mikhail Lermontov saga: will it sink the Marlborough Harbour Board?. Auckland, New Zealand: North & South Magazine, July 1986. Pp.46-50.

O'Connor, Tom: Death of a Cruise Ship - The Mystery of the Mikhail Lermontov. Whatamango Bay, Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand: Cape Catley Ltd., 1999. 200 pp. ISBN 0-908561-69-5.

Ponder, W. Frank: A Labyrinth of Waterways; The Forgotten Story of the Marlborough Sounds. Blenheim, New Zealand: Wenlock House, 1986. Cloth, 168 pages, illustrated.

Destination Disaster: The Sinking Of The Mikhail Lermontov. Auckland: Television New Zealand, 2000. Video documentary.

Above: Kevin Dekker's 1:290 scale model of the liner


Baltic Shipping Company; MS Mikhail Lermontov, 16 pp booklet of deck plans and various rooms, in full-color photos, circa 1965 (?), in photo wraps.

Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov Deck Plans. 8x11.5 Colour coded. One plan on each side.

Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov 1975 Sailing schedule, Fares & Cruises. 8pps. 8x9". 2 exterior photos, 7 interior & deck photos.

Mikhail Lermontov Daily Programme dated during a 1977 voyage. 4 pps. Printed in 3 languages.

Mikhail Lermontov "Programme of Celebration". Celebrates 12th Anniversary of the Launching; 18 March 1984. 7x9" folder. Exterior photo. Issued aboard her World cruise

Mikhail Lermontov & Turkmenia, CTC Line voyages to Australia & New Zealand 1984-85. (England). 8.25x11.5". 6 exterior photos, 5 interior & deck color photos. Sailings, fares in sterling. Information.


Thanks to Clive Harvey and Nikolay Prikhodko, also to Steven McLachlan (specialist in Maritime Covers) and Kevin Dekker for many of the images and Marcus Castell for the research.

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