New Zealand’s Mikhail Lermontov reveals a tragic tale of duels, death and poetic injustice, but it’s a helluva sunken ship to explore
Text by Kevin Davidson and H.E. Sawyer
Photography by Kevin Davidson
This tale comes from Soviet Russia, so naturally it’s a tragedy. And a tragedy born out of tragedy, at that.
Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov was a Romantic poet. He was killed in a duel by a fellow army officer who took offense at one of his jokes. And as if that wasn’t tragic enough, the protagonist waited for two days after the insult to face off at the foot of a mountain. Neither man backed down and Lermontov was killed with the first shot. It was 1841. He was just 27.
Fortunately for posterity, Russian literature and this particular story, Lermontov had already penned his signature work, ‘Death of a Poet’. Ironically this was not written as a prophecy, but an angry young man’s response to the demise of his fellow rhapsodist, Pushkin. Who had been shot and killed. In a duel. You can’t really describe Pushkin’s death as ‘senseless’, because it was Pushkin’s twenty ninth duel. Pushkin was a fatality statistic waiting to happen. Bravado does that to a man. Bravado and vodka. Bravado, vodka and legalized dueling. Thank the stars they invented Playstation.
In 1972, Mikhail Lermontov was resurrected in a shipyard in Wismar, East Germany. His literary legacy ensured his name was given to the the last of five ‘poet’ ships for the Soviet Union’s Baltic Shipping Company. Rounding out the fleet, he was in the company of the Ivan Franko,
Taras Shevchenko, Alexander Pushkin and Shota Rustaveli. The Pushkin is the sole survivor, now renamed Marco Polo.
Originally a liner on the Leningrad to New York run, the Lermontov was converted to cruising in pursuit of the ruble. This role reversal may also have been somewhat ‘forced’, due to President Reagan’s decision in 1980 to ban Soviet ships from U.S. waters: a political tit-for-tat in response to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
Whatever the reason, the Mikhail Lermontov was suitably groomed to welcome 700 plus of the cruising set with a US$15 million refit. Cabins now boasted en suite facilities, the public areas were lavishly refurbished: there was the Bolshoi Lounge, the Neptune Bar, the Leningrad Restaurant, a gym, sauna and spa. The exterior gleamed brilliant white from bow to stern under a coat of fresh paint. With a star on the prow and a hammer and sickle on the funnel, she set sail.
The crew spoke of a happy ship with a family atmosphere. Passenger ships compatible with the Lermontov retain a certain style. They evoke a ‘Golden Age of Travel’ while retaining an intimate atmosphere lost on modern gargantuans.
Sunday the 16th of February, 1986 saw the Lermontov cruising New Zealand’s South Island, 735 passengers and crew commanded by Captain Vladislav Vorobyev. She departed the town of Picton for the Marlborough Sounds, under the supervision of the local pilot, Captain Don Jamison, who treated the mainly elderly Australian passengers to a sight seeing tour of the picturesque coastline, complete with a running commentary over the public address.
The ship hugged the land. Passengers and crew recalled the vessel being within 100 feet (30m) at times, ‘close shaves’, for a 20,000 tonne vessel.
Then, at Cape Jackson passage, with Captain Vorobyev still below, Jamison impulsively took a short cut, darting the Lermontov, now making 15 knots, between the lighthouse and the headland, rather than the circuitous route around the outside.
Just after 5:30 p.m. the port side hull was ripped open on the reef. The gash was only 1.6 feet (0.5m) wide, but ran for some 40 feet (12m), puncturing three watertight compartments. The captain returned to the bridge, immediately resumed command and ordered the watertight doors to be shut. But the wound in the belly was fatal, and, after assessing the damage, Vorobyev calculated they only had four hours afloat at most.
The Band Played On
The crew informed the passengers that dinner would be delayed but the wine tasting currently in progress would continue. So the band played on, and there was no sense of panic, at least until the glasses started to slide off the table.
Initially the Lermontov issued a distress call. The tanker Tarihiko responded. Then came a second call, bizarrely countermanding the first. Thankfully Captain Reedman on Tarihiko chose to ignore the order to stand down and pressed ahead to the rendezvous.
As the weather deteriorated the Lermontov continued to ship water at an alarming rate. Radio communications between Wellington – where the rescue efforts were being co-ordinated – and Port Gore, where the drama was unfolding and reputations were unravelling – were unreliable and confused.
Vorobyev decided to run his stricken ship aground in an attempt to save her, but by 7:15 p.m. the electrics had failed and the engines drowned. Subsequently powerless, unable to steer, sinking at bow and developing a list, the Russian captain knew he had no chance of beaching, so consequently had no choice other than to abandon ship and save everyone aboard.
Fortunately for the beleaguered cruise ship, rescue efforts were also being co-ordinated by the Baker family, who’d physically crossed country from their station to Port Gore to witness the predicament first hand. It became immediately apparent to them that the loss of the Lermontov was a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’, so they mustered the experienced local skippers of Marlborough Sounds to come to her aid.
With the liner sickly listing 20 degrees to starboard, the crew started shepherding the elderly passengers from the upper deck down to the waiting lifeboats, the tilt rendering the rope ladders too short for those agile enough to use them.
Having ignored the order to stand down, Captain Reedman brought the tanker Tarihiko into play when he arrived at the scene at 8.:45 p.m., and proceeded to take some passengers and crew aboard his vessel.
By 9.:30 p.m., the car ferry Arahura, from the Picton to Wellington service, also arrived, and was joined by Navy patrol boat, HMNZS Taupo.
By now Lermontov was pitch black and dead in the water, a barely floating corpse attended by a cortege of a dozen smaller craft who had responded to the Baker’s timely call. Crew members searching for any remaining passengers were traversing corridors with one foot on the floor and one on the wall, such was the extent of the list.
At a little before 10.:30 p.m., the ship ceased to struggle and went down by the bow. Air rushed out, bulkheads blew under the pressure, and eye witnesses described the tremendous noise of something in terrible pain, then a ferment; massive bubbles and debris erupting on the surface. After that, not a sound.
The passengers were taken to Wellington to recover. Some had broken bones, some suffered hypothermia. Their average age was 70, but all were rescued. They’d been extremely fortunate, given that some lifejacket fabric disintegrated to the touch and that the lifeboats were in poor condition. Some were totally unseaworthy. Some had been painted in situ, and were stuck fast.
Pilot Jamison was spirited away. The crew were flown back to Russia, minus a refrigeration engineer who was never recovered. He was the sole fatality of the disaster. His widow and young son buried a uniform in a symbolic grave.
Naturally the morning after the night before dawned picture postcard perfect. Hundreds of deck chairs bobbed round the bay and many households in the Sounds duly appropriated them for their own verandas.
Down on the virgin wreck, divers recovered the ship’s safe and the oil and fuel was pumped out to negate any environmental hazard. Then the souvenir hunters moved in. Cutlery, crockery, curtains and bar stools made their way to the surface, and one intrepid diver walked off with the ultimate trophy: the hammer and sickle affixed to the funnel.
While the waters may have closed over the Lermontov for good, questions still remained. Few were answered at the subsequent enquiry, which was perceived as a bit of a white wash.
Captain Jamison, the man in charge at the time of the actual impact, stated that he believed there was more clearance through the channel than there actually was and he’d taken a short cut on the spur of the moment. He also claimed he was exhausted due to overwork. However, some observers felt Jamison had taken the riskier course because he wanted to make a name for himself.
No action was taken against Jamison. New Zealand simply didn’t have laws in place at that time to secure a conviction. Ultimately, they wrote Jamison a strongly worded letter, suggesting he surrender his master’s ticket, which he duly complied with. Even bringing a charge of endangering the ship and crew was dropped, because the maximum penalty of $1,000 and two years in jail couldn’t justify the expense of returning the Russian crew to New Zealand to testify.
The Russians held their own enquiry and found the pilot guilty in his absence. With Jamison out of their reach they focused on the crew. The
Lermontov’s navigator received four years in prison and Captain Vorobyev was demoted to a desk until finally becoming master of a small freighter plying the African coast. As for Jamison, he eventually reapplied for his master’s ticket and it was returned to him.
As if the whole affair wasn’t surreal enough, there was a suggestion that the sinking was an act of counter espionage; that the Soviet cruise ship was actually spying. In 1984, the New Zealand government made a big play of being ‘Atomkraft? Nien Danke!’, barring all nuclear powered or nuclear armed ships, from their ports.
This didn’t go down at all well with the sabre-rattling U.S. administration. To put events in context, President Reagan had made his infamous ‘Evil Empire’ speech in March 1983. The Americans just weren’t digging the New Zealand vibe of how Green and Beautiful Everything Could Be.
Coincidentally the CIA had their Southern Hemisphere intel base at Blenheim, just a crow flight from Picton. And the Lermontov had the capacity to act as a spy ship. There were reportedly KGB agents on board to keep an eye on the crew.
It certainly made a good conspiracy theory for divers enjoying a port and stilton supper with a Dirk Pitt novel for company. But as Lermontov specialist Brent McFadden told me, “Purposely sinking a ship like this would be near impossible. They have enough trouble sinking ships under controlled conditions. It’s a local pilot showing off to other coastal skippers, trying to prove he could get between the light house and headland. Which of course he did. It just sunk on the other side.”
One of the Largest
Brent has a point. And 1,500 plus dives on the wreck over the last 25 years to back it up. He runs Go Dive out of nearby Picton, and if you’re thinking of diving the Lermontov, he’s now the sole ‘one stop shop’. Due to its remote location off the South Island, Go Dive accesses the wreck with a two and a half hour road trip, overnighting at their Lermontov Lodge. But once there, it’s just a five minutes sprint on the dive boat.
The Lodge is a forward base set up for recreational and tech divers, with twin sets, rebreathers and Nitrox. The accommodation houses 12 in four bunk style rooms, with all food and bedding supplied. There is no cellphone or Internet coverage, but you’ll be able to watch a documentary on the wreck and get set up for two or three dives the following day. Go Dive can offer trips from 24 hours to five days and there is training in dry suit use, if, like us, you’re hardcore Martini divers.
A dry suit is recommended, because, although the wreck lies in very calm waters, it can get nippy. There, in the southern hemisphere, water temperature can go down to 54℉ (12℃) in September, from a relatively balmy 65℉ (18℃) in February. On the flip side, visibility is generally best September to November, when it can reach 80 feet (25m) plus. When it heats up from mid December to May, the visibility range is between 16 and 26 feet (5-8m). There’s the possibility of varying visibility on the same dive between bow and stern, and visibility can change during the course of the day, but Brent says the interior has good clarity throughout the year.
Lermontov, twin buoyed (at stern and pilot house) lies on its starboard side on the seabed at 120 feet (36m). The 377-foot (115m) liner is one of the largest diveable wrecks in the world and your multi-level adventure starts at 40 feet (12m). After a quarter of a century submerged, a forest of kelp thrives along the hull providing a shelter for marine life. Blue and red moki, blue and red cod, teriki, blennies, triplefins, dogfish, carpet sharks, sea perch, spotties, octopus, sweep and the occasional king fish reside there.
There are 12 decks, but as the wreck lays on its side you would fin ‘down’ a staircase and along a corridor to the next staircase to ‘descend’ again. It’s best to take a guide. There have been more fatalities diving the wreck than the solitary seaman lost during the sinking.
There is the remains of a chandelier, fallen furniture, a bar stool bolted at ninety degrees and a set of stage lights in the movie theatre. Beer cans lay in a pile, logos still recognizable.
Even the most proficient divers will create a disturbance, so it’s best to move through the interior with minimal finning, being aware that exhaust bubbles hitting the ceiling can reduce the visibility. Moving through a companion way there’s a pile of books fallen from the library. Resist the temptation to rearrange the composition; decay has set in, and even a gentle touch will spoil the clarity.
There is much to appreciate on the exterior, too. There is easy access around the superstructure, traversing railings and bollards. The circular radar antennas present a beautiful silhouette. The mast hangs suspended in the blue. Both props are still present, one partially buried in sand; the other is totally cool.
Because the wreck lies in calm water and is relatively recent, it is possible to see the machinery in detail: knobs, switches and levers, all ready to be operated. The engine room is naturally huge. Entry is by a skylight. By contrast, the pilot house is tight, yet it is still possible to drop inside through the missing windows on the port side to view the steering mechanism.
An iconic panorama is the gigantic swimming pool with large ‘overhead’ skylights. Some glass panes are still intact, allowing ambient light to stream in to this awesome underwater greenhouse. For photographers the Lermontov offers numerous opportunities. Great images are to be had everywhere. Well worth the effort, the wreck of the Mikhail Lermontov is truly world class.
For additional information, pricing and bookings go to www.godive.co.nz
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