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    MV Mikhail Lermontov
    Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - MV Mikhail Lermontov There are a number of fantastic shipwrecks in the South Pacific. The SS President Coolidge, the Yongala, the Toa Maru and the deeper wrecks of Honiora. The most recent of all the real shipwrecks is the MV Mikhail Lermontov in New Zealand.

    TheMikhail Lermontov was one of five ships built in built in Wismar, Germany (then East Germany) for the Baltic Shipping Company, owned by the USSR. The builder was Mathias Thesen Werft of East Germany. Launched in 1972 into the Baltic Sea, the new vessel was 155 metres long, 23.6 metres wide and had a gross tonnage of 20,351 tons. Powered by two 7,723Kw Sulzer diesel engines driving twin props. The ship was named after Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov, a famous Russian novelist and poet who died during a duel at the age of 27.

    The ship was capable of carry 550 passengers and every cabin had private facilities. There was a pool, cinema, beauty salon, one restaurant, five bars, shops, library, disco and an hairdresser. As well, there was a lounge where shows were staged. The crew numbered about 330.

    Patrick Ford e-mailed me as follows:

    I was reading on your site about the Lermontov.You happened to mention that you did not know her history prior to 1980. She used to sail from Montreal to London and then on to Leningrad. It was regular passenger service. My wife and I sailed on her in May 1972 so everything was new. We went from Montreal to London (Tilbury Dock) Students took the trip because it was cheap.The food stunk so did the washrooms.I found a very large roach in our so called stateroom.The Vodka was dirt cheap so we were pissed for most of the journey.The swimming pool was closed and the staff were typical Russians who couldnt care less. We only went the one way (we flew home) Hope this answers a few questions. Best place for that tub is on the bottom.

    By the 1980s she was spending six months in European waters (when she was painted black) and the remaining months in the Pacific (when she was painted white). In the mid-1980s she had a refit at a cost of £11,000,000 (NZ$36,000,000). The ship's final owner was the Baltic Shipping Company of Leningrad, USSR.

    The Mikhail Lermontov left Sydney on about 6 February 1986 for a New Zealand cruise. She had first visited various ports on the North Island of New Zealand before arriving at the Capital, Wellington, on 15 February 1986. Late that day (probably after midnight), she left Wellington on 15 February 1986 to cross Cook Strait for Picton on the top of the South Island. This is normally a three hour trip, although in 1999 it took me 3.5 hours to cross and 4.5 hours for the trip back due to huge seas - and I mean huge - 8 to 9 metre seas.

    Anyway, on this trip there were 408 passengers, 330 crew and 3 pilots, a total of 741 persons, although I think that this (passenger) number was was when it left Sydney rather than as it crossed the Cook Strait. One record tells me there were 738 passengers and crew but as this misses the above figure by 3 (the number of pilots), then I guess that this was the same number. She arrived at Picton at 8am on Sunday 16 February 1986 after the Captain decided that it was unsafe to enter Tory Channel (the entrance to Queen Charlotte Sound from Wellington) until daylight. It is a relatively narrow channel, affected greatly by incoming and outgoing tides. In normal circumstances (using the cross-straight ferry) it takes about 1.5 hours from Wellington to the entrance and it then about 1.5 hours from the entrance to Picton. The trip along Tory Channel into Queen Charlotte Sound is spectacular, one of the best views I have ever seen anywhere in the world.

    The north-eastern part of New Zealand's South Island is known as Marlborough Sounds. The main sound is Queen Charlotte Sound and the main town in the area is Picton, located nearly at the head of the sound. The sound is 49 kilometres long, and many kilometres wide in most places. It was named by Lieutenant James Cook in January 1770 when he passed through the area while circumnavigating New Zealand's two main islands.

    While transitting Wellington Harbour, Marlborough Sounds (and the intention was later for Milford Sound), the Mikhail Lermontov was under the control of Captain Don Jamison. He was the Marlbourough Harbour Master, Pilot and Acting General Manager. Assisting him was Captain G.F. Neill, Deputy Harbour Master. The previous year, her sister ship, the MV Alexander Pushkin also visited Picton, presumably also under Captain Jamison's control.

    Picton is an amazing little town. Located between the water and the surrounding hills, Picton is a very popular town on the itineraries of all backpackers visiting New Zealand. It has heaps of backpacker lodges, excellent restaurants as well as great pubs and bars. The main attraction for the backpackers is the Queen Charlotte Track. This 67 kilometre long walking track extends most of the way along the Sound. In late 1999 I walked the track with four other members of the St George Scuba Club. A fantastic trip by the way!

    Anyway, on board the ship as the passengers and normal crew, were Australian entertainers. These included Bunny Gibson (who was married to John Mellion, one of Paul Hogan's co-stars in Crocodile Dundee and VB ads - even to this day although he died more than 15 years ago) and Horrie Dargie. In 1976 or 1977, Bunny appeared in a musical, Annie Get Your Gun (co-starring the original film star, Howard Keel) at South Sydney Juniors Rugby League Club in Sydney. I was working in the Club at that time and after each show, she would come and have a drink with us mere mortals. And a drink. And a drink. And a drink. Like John, she liked a drink!

    Well, after a great day in Picton, the ship departed at 3 pm for Milford Sound on the West Coast of the South Island.

    On this trip the Mikhail Lermontov was under the control of Captain Vladislav Vorobyov. He was not the regular skipper of the ship but had captained her in 1983 for four months and had been skipper for almost four months while the normal captain was on leave. The Chief Navigator was Sergey Stepanishchev, Second Mate and Foreign Seagoing Navigator was Sergey Gusev (more than three years on the ship) and the Helsman was Anatoliy Burin.

    After leaving Picton Wharf, the Mikhail Lermontov moved into the adjacent Shakespeare Bay so the passengers could see the (wreck) of the Edwin Fox (built in 1853). In 1999 this wreck (and it is a wreck) is located in a drydock next to the main wharf and is "under restoration". Big chance, every single piece of timber will need to be replaced so I would not call this restoration (a bit like the James Craig in Sydney). While doing this it is reported that the ship almost hit the shore, stopping only 30 metres from land. From here she motored up the sound towards Cook Strait where she would round Cape Jackson and head towards the West Coast and ultimately, Milford Sound. At 4.15 pm, near Luke Rock, the Deputy Pilot departed in the Pilot Boat.

    The Pilot instructed the speed to be increased to 15 knots and the Captain concurred. It is reported that the ship sailed along the western shore "...so close to the shore that you could just about have reached out and touched the leaves on the trees". At 4.30 pm the Captain left the Bridge, telling the Second Mate that the "pilot had changed the track of the proposed course and intended to manoeurve the ship around Ship Cove." The Captain reported that the ship was as close as 182 metres to the shore, a bit close considering the size and the speed she was travelling.

    In 1769, Lieutenant James Cook, RN, visited Queen Charlotte Sound in HM Bark Endeavour on historic voyage to the South Pacific. He landed at Ship Cove where he collected water and other supplies (today there is a monument here to Cook).

    Leaving Ship Cove, the ship was on a course of 040 and after 8 or 10 minutes, the Pilot changed the course to 030. Navigator Gusev said in Russian that they were too close to shore. He told Chief Navigator Stepanishchev to speak to Pilot Jamison. Stepanishchev said to Jamison "Captain, why are you taking us into such a dangerous place?" He replied that he was giving passengers a close look at Cape Jackson.

    As the ship reached the Queen Charlotte Harbour Limit, the ship turned to port and was heading just off the point of Cape Jackson. As she approached the Cape, one passenger commented that "...I could see white water ahead" and another said to his wife "If he doesn't hit those rocks, I'll eat my hat".

    Pilot Jamison ordered the ship to turn 10 degrees to port. The Russian crew were astounded to hear this change of course. Navigator Gusev said "I can see a line of white water in there, what is he doing?" and he apparently told Chief Navigator Stepanishchev of his concern. It is then said that Chief Navigator Stepanishchev said to Pilot Jamison "Captain, why are you taking us in so close?" "There is no need to worry, there is plenty of water here" said Jamison (or something similar). Another change of direction, port 10 degrees, was ordered by Jamison.

    Ahead the Russian crew saw white water, caused by the tidal run over shallow and narrow waters. The ship passed over the white water and the crew thought that they were safe. At 1737, the ship hit rocks.

    The Mikhail Lemontov had hit reef between Cape Jackson and Walker Rock, a reef that is clearly marked on charts and was marked first by Lieutenant James Cook when he passed by on his exploration of the South Island. When the ship hit the rocks, glasses flew off tables when the ship shook very badly.

    There was a 12 metre hole in the port side of the ship, exposing a number of watertight compartments. The ship was doomed. The Chief Navigator ordered the engines to be stopped and the Pilot was reported as being white in colour, saying in response to a question by the Captain as to what had happened, "I don't know". Chief Navigator Stepanishchev said that "The pilot recommended that I should allow him to take the ship through the pass to give the passengers a good look at Cape Jackson and the lighthouse. He assured me that it was safe to do so."

    The Pilot ordered a turn 15 degrees to port but the Captain overrode it with a turn to starboard. The Captain also ordered the port engine half ahead and the starboard engine half astern (this assists the turn) . Reports of water entering the refrigerated store then the laundry, gym, refrigerated machine room and the printing room showed water entering very fast. The starboard ballast tanks were pumped as there was already a 10 degree list.

    At 1743 (six minutes after hitting the rocks), the Captain ordered the watertight doors closed and a general alarm sounded. An announcement was made for emergency parties to gather. The lower levels of the ship were examined and it was discovered that if all the compartments that currently had water in them filled, the ship would sink.

    A Mayday was sent at 1801 (why you would wait this long is anyones guess?) and received by Wellington Radio. An LPG tanker, MV Tarihiko, was anchored about 17 nautical miles away and she sped to the scene. Despite reports that the ship was being turned to starboard, diagrams kept by the Navigator show that after a turn to starboard, the ship turned hard to port as to continue to starboard would have hit the rocks again. The time was 1804. The ship continued to turn to port and slowly headed into Port Gore. At 1819 the Mayday was recalled and never broadcast again. However, the Tarihiko, which had up anchored and started to help, continued towards the Lemontov and at this time was 9.5 miles away. The Captain of the Tarihiko decided to continue as the reported list was heavy.

    A further turn to port happened at 1825 and at about 1840 a turn to starboard. The ship continued on this course and at 1900 a report came in that water was entering the electrical switchboard. The Captain was advised that the power was likely to be cut, causing the engines to stop. The Captain ordered full speed ahead and at about 1905 the final turn, to port, happened. At 1920 the Lemontov requested the Tarihiko to stand by. At 1915 the power failed and the pumps stopped and the engines were cut by automatic safety switches. At 1932 the crew were evacuated from the engine room. The Mikhail Lemontov was 1450 metres from the southern end of Port Gore bay. She drifted until she grounded 155 metres off the shore. At 1941 the Tarihiko sighted the Lemontov and advised Wellington Radio and all vessels in the area that assistance was needed.

    At 1950 some lifeboats were seen in the water, apparently trying to ferry passengers ashore. At 1954 the Captain requested a tug to pull/push the ship further aground (the trouble was that the tugs were over five hours away) and informed the Tarihiko that the assistance of its lifeboats was not required. At 2019 the assistance was requested. At 2059 she took aboard about 80 to 100 passengers. The Cook Strait ferry, MV Arahura arrived on the scene at 2135 after travelling from near Picton (she left there at 1953) and at 2207 another lifeboat came alongside. At 2215 the Lemontov was listing 40 degrees to starboard. More lifeboats came alongside and at 2245 the Lemontov is believed to have sunk. At 2255 three more lifeboats and a raft came alongside. There were 356 people from the Lemontov on the Tarihiko.

    A large number of smaller craft also assisted in the rescue. All passengers were rescued and only one person was missing. There were 327 Australians, 36 British, 6 Americans, 2 Germans and 1 New Zealander and 8 unknown. I think the missing person was a crew member. Some passegers were taken to Picton but most went to Wellington.

    The Baltic Shipping Company later accepted responsibility for the sinking because the pilot was nominally under its control.

    Travel insurers later sued the Baltic Shipping Company for losses (on behalf of the passengers - trying to recover their costs). This was carried out in NSW since this is where the trip originated and where the vast number of passengers boarded the ship. As well as loss of enjoyment, they claimed for loss of baggage, a fare refund for cancellation during the course of the cruise, and emergency and medical expenses. All these actions were carried out in the name of Mrs Dillon (sorry - I do not know her full name as the court reports only give her surname). She originally claimed the whole fare paid and the Surpreme Court of NSW agreed with this are ruled that she was entitled to a full refund. However, the High Court of Australia ruled that as she had enjoyed eight full days (almost nine) of the 14 day cruise, she was not entitled to a full refund. They decided that the cruise was not just the movement of a person from A to B but that it was a holiday, so since Mrs Dillon had enjoyed 9/14 of the holiday [my summary] she only received 5/14 of a fare refund (Baltic Shipping had paid for return airfare to Sydney).

    In addtion, Mrs Dillon was awarded compensation for loss of personal effects and baggage as follows: money - $300; jewellery - $600; baggage $3365; total: $4265. She also sued for general damages for personal injury ($35,000 awarded) and damages for distress and disappointment ($5,000). She was also awarded interst of $10,018. Other people also sued for various amounts.

    The Mikhail Lermontov case is considered the leading Australian case on "loss of enjoyment". The High Court prefers to use the expression "damages for distress and disappointment" rather than "damages for loss of enjoyment". See references for where to find more details.

    There was some salvage work done on the ship. Involved were Ian Lockley of Fiji (who salvaged the oil from the SS President Coolidge in 1972) and Ricke Poole, co-owner of Pro Dive in Sydney.

    I have not dived the MV Mikhail Lemontov but it is relatively shallow. The shipwreck can be dived from Picton. There are a number of dive shops and charter boats that dive the wreck, although not on a regular basis. Try searching the web for possible shops and charter operators.


  • The Mikhail Lermontov Enigma by Michael Guerin
  • Death of a Cruise Ship by Tom O'Connor
  • Emails from Tony Cordato, Cordato Partners, dated July 2006
  • Australian Travel & Tourism Law (4th ed) by Tony Cordato, published by LexisNexis
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