Through the wreck of a giant

Last updated 11:21 15/02/2014

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Its 20,000-tonne bulk would soon sit on the seabed but, as Russian liner Mikhail Lermontov foundered, the Cossacks danced on.

Cocktails were served and dinner, the crew said, was on its way.

Earlier that day, on February 16, 1986, the Lermontov - named after a 19th-century Russian poet who died in a gun duel in 1841 - was taken on an ill-advised shortcut across the top of Cape Jackson, at the head of the Marlborough Sounds. It would be the last shortcut it would make.

On board, Adelaide yachtsman Henry Wilkens was in the middle of a game of bridge.

"I was looking out the port window and could see a reef with a concrete pillar and light on it. There was white water on either side of it.

"About three minutes before we hit the rocks, we were in between the reef and the land. I certainly would never have taken a ship that way."

The Lermontov hit the rocks with a loud crunch. Mr Wilkens finished his hand, but abandoned the game.

The cruise liner would sink at 10.50pm that night in Port Gore, south of Cape Jackson.

The story effectively began a day earlier - 28 years ago today, on February 15, 1986 - when it set sail from Wellington, carrying an exhausted Captain Don Jamison who was Picton harbourmaster, pilot and acting general manager.

On February 16, the ship sailed out of Picton with 409 passengers - mostly elderly Australians - and 330 crew. Captain Jamison navigated through the sounds, giving a tour- bus-like commentary over the speakers.

About 5pm, he made the crucial decision that led to the sinking.

He would later say in court that "the only explanation I can offer" was he was suffering from mental and physical exhaustion. The two vodkas and a beer he had that lunchtime had not impaired his judgment, he said.

He saw a passage open between Cape Jackson and the lighthouse, and ordered the ship to be steered 10 degrees to port. Captain Vladislav Vorobyov was off the bridge.

Captain Jamison had previously taken small boats with draughts of about two metres through the passage, but nothing the size of the Lermontov, which had a draught of more than 8m.

At 5.37pm it hit rocks, tearing a 10m-by-4m hole near its bow thrusters. Captain Vorobyov rushed to the bridge.

Meanwhile, in the passenger areas, crew members tried to maintain an air of normality.

Simone Young, then 18, would later tell how a crewman shook her awake and took her and others to the saloon deck.

"We all had Russian cocktails," she remembered the next day.

Later, the ship's listing would become so bad that the Cossack dancers struggled to stand, but crew members asked her to dance.

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Passengers were told not to worry. They were told "crew won't be in uniform" and "dinner will be served as normal".

Passengers would tell how a wine tasting ended only when glasses would no longer remain upright as the ship listed.

A distress signal was sent out but, inexplicably, the Tarihiko LPG tanker which was steaming towards Port Gore to help was told it was not required. Its captain, John Reedman, ignored the advice and steamed on. The Tarihiko would, in the dark, pluck 356 passengers and 164 crew from the Lermontov and its liferafts and pack them on to decks for a return to Wellington.

Cook Strait ferry the Arahura arrived at 9.30pm and picked up others, as did dozens of small craft that rushed to the scene.

The sun shone the next day as thousands of relics from the ship, including hundreds of deck chairs, bobbed to the surface.

In the end, only one person - Russian engineer Pavel Zaglyadinov - was unaccounted for.

After the sinking, a preliminary inquiry found Captain Jamison at fault but, under the Shipping and Seamen Act, New Zealand had no jurisdiction to conduct a full and formal inquiry in to a Russian ship. It was also decided such an inquiry would find nothing new.

Captain Jamison would return to shipping, finally retiring as a skipper for Strait Shipping in 2001. Police did not prosecute, as there was no proof that Mr Zaglyadinov, whose body was never found, had died.

A damages settlement, reached out of court, was made between the harbour board and the ship's owners. In Russia, Vorobyov was given a four-year suspended jail sentence.

For 28 years, the Lermontov has sat on the bottom of Port Gore, slowly getting covered with silt. Dive Wellington technical instructor Chris Clarke visited the wreck last month, swimming through the green depths, through the once- flash pool and down the hallways.

"You can never comprehend the size until you see it," he said.

- The Dominion Post

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