150 Years of News: Nightmare cruise on the Mikhail Lermontov

The Soviet liner Mikhail Lermontov was carrying 409 mostly Australian passengers and 330 crew on its New Zealand cruise.

The Soviet liner Mikhail Lermontov was carrying 409 mostly Australian passengers and 330 crew on its New Zealand cruise.

As the Titanic sank in 1912, the ship's band played to calm the passengers.

But when a Soviet passenger liner hit rocks in the Marlborough Sounds in 1986, the crew broke out the vodka.

One crew member died when the 20,000-tonne cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov tore a huge hole in its hull and sank on February 16, carrying 409 mostly Australian passengers and 330 crew. The ship had just left Picton after a stay in Wellington.

A distressed passenger arrives in Wellington after Soviet-owned cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov sank in the Marlborough ...
FAIRFAX NZ

A distressed passenger arrives in Wellington after Soviet-owned cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov sank in the Marlborough Sounds in 1986.

"The South Pacific holiday became a nightmare," The Evening Post reported.

Reports of the emergency were full of bizarre details and poor management by the Russians.

Australian passenger Simone Young, 18, was woken by a crew member just after 6pm, when the ship hit rocks a kilometre from Jackson's Head at Port Gore.

"As I went up and looked down the stairwell, I could see quite deep water. The crewman took us up to the saloon deck, and we all had Russian cocktails," Young told the Post the next day.

Passengers told the paper that loudspeaker announcements were all in Russian, the only message in English being that dinner was 30 minutes late. The lifeboats were so rotten they had to be plugged with people's shoes.

After a distress signal, the Russians sent a message that no further assistance was needed, despite the ship listing at 10 degrees in rough weather.

But gas tanker Tarihiko was already on its way from Wellington, and its captain, John Reedman, ignored the second message.

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He ended up transporting 520 passengers and crew back to the capital, with others carried by the Cook Strait ferry Arahura, police launch Lady Elizabeth II, and a flotilla of smaller ships.

"How comforting the sight of those rescue ships must have been to passengers and crew of the sinking cruise liner," the Post said.

"Accusations abound that the passengers were left bewildered and without proper instructions until later in the emergency. The fact remains the Russian crew did manage to safely evacuate all passengers."

At midnight, police put out a radio appeal for Wellingtonians to host the shipwrecked for the night; hundreds of responses flowed in, with some people calling 111 to offer a bed.

While Soviet diplomats shielded captain Vladislav Vorobyov from the New Zealand press, he told Soviet television that his route was decided by Picton harbourmaster Don Jamison.

A Wellington Harbour Board spokesman said "no one in their right mind" would take a liner between Walkers rock and the headland.

Jamison later blamed his mistake on mental and physical exhaustion, and told a court his judgment had been impaired by two vodkas and a beer at lunchtime. The Mikhail Lermontov still sits on the bottom of Port Gore, an attraction now for divers.

 - The Dominion Post

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