28 Sep 2018

The Experience of a Lifetime - Sinking of Mikhail Lermontov

From Eyewitness, 7:00 am on 28 September 2018

Why is a Soviet ship lying on the bottom of the Marlborough Sounds?

EP/1989/1713/4 Soviet cruise liner the Mikhail Lermontov sinking in the Marlborough Sounds, taken ca 16 February 1986 by the skipper of a fishing boat.

EP/1989/1713/4 Soviet cruise liner the Mikhail Lermontov sinking in the Marlborough Sounds, taken ca 16 February 1986 by the skipper of a fishing boat. Photo: Supplied

Port Gore Bay in the Marlborough Sounds is a beautiful place - from the shore. But head out onto the water even just a short distance and you can soon see another side. The water here is deep, very cold and murky. Turbulence from Cook Strait churns up the bay, making it rough to swim in and lowering visibility to nearly zero.

Only the very good and the very brave go diving here. After tying up to a nondescript buoy, divers slip into the water and clutch tightly to a taut, shuddering rope that leads them down through the depths. At about 15 meters below the surface they come upon what looks like the bottom of the bay. It’s only when you touch it do you realise that this long, curved mound was once a ship.

That ship was the Mikhail Lermontov, once the pride of the Soviet Union’s fleet of cruise ships.  The Lermontov has been lying on the bottom of Port Gore bay for more than 30 years. Very few people get to see it now and even then, they don’t see much of it.

Derek Grzelewski has seen as much of the ship as he cares to. Derek is a writer and a filmmaker, the author of the book ‘Going to Extremes’, with a chapter about diving on the wreck of the Mikhail Lermontov. It’s an eerie, uncanny experience, to explore a dead ship Derek which describes as “like a 55 storey building lying on its side at the bottom of the ocean”.

‘Everything just recedes into the gloom,’ says Derek. ‘You’re in this void, in this dome of what you can see and outside of that it’s just darkness.

‘It’s basically the stuff of your nightmares.’

But what is a Soviet ship doing lying on the bottom of the Marlborough Sounds? Well, it’s a funny old tale and it doesn’t have a happy ending or even really an ending at all.

Russian cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov berthed at Wellington Harbour.

Russian cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov berthed at Wellington Harbour - Photograph taken by John Nicholson. Dominion post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1986/0740/34-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22303354 Photo: Supplied

The port town of Picton has seen a lot of ships but not many like the Mikhail Lermontov. At 150 metres long and twelve decks high, she was far bigger than anything else around her when she docked in the early hours of Saturday 15 February 1986. Under Captain Vladislav Vorobyov this elegant white cruise ship had crossed the Tasman from Sydney with more than 700 passengers and crew on board, on what advertising claimed would be the “experience of a lifetime”. They’d visited Auckland, Tauranga and Wellington and were sailing to Milford Sound before heading home. The pilot who’d guided her into Picton would later take her out again; local harbourmaster Captain Don Jamison, a man with decades of experience in these waters.

At 3.10 that afternoon, the Lermontov left Picton. Both captain and pilot agree that some sightseeing is in order for the passengers. The course they’re taking runs pretty close to land so everyone can get a good, up close view of the scenery of the sounds. At 4.30pm Captain Vorobyov goes below, leaving two senior officers, a helmsman, a lookout and Jamison on the bridge. An hour later, the Lermontov is at top speed as she steams towards the top of Cape Jackson. Ignoring the pre-plotted course, Jamison orders the helmsman to make a left hand turn through the passage between the point and the lighthouse. The gap isn’t huge, the water is rough and shallow with big rocks under surface.

It was through this gap between Cape Jackson and the lighthouse that Captain Don Jamison tried to steer the cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov.

It was through this gap between Cape Jackson and the lighthouse that Captain Don Jamison tried to steer the cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov. Area in Marlborough Sounds, near Cape Jackson, where the Russian cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov is believed to have been holed - Photograph taken by Ian Mackley. Dominion post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1986/0772/14a-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22546638 Photo: Supplied

5.37pm. Impact. The ship hits underwater rocks and rips three holes in her side, each 25 metres long. The noise can be heard 8 kilometres away. Captain Vorobyov races to the bridge and the general alarm is sounded, causing water tight doors to close and pumps to start working.

Water rushes into the Lermontov at an incredible rate and the ship starts to list on its side. The captain orders the ship to head for Port Gore a few kilometres way. If he can beach the Lermontov, she could still be saved and everyone will get off safely. Not everyone will, though. 33 year old engineer Pavel Zaglyadimov was at his post when the ship hit the rocks and presumably drowned soon after. His body has never been found.

6pm. Jamison radios a request for help and nearby ships and small boats race to the Lermontov as she limps towards the beach. Water rushes into her engine room, short-circuiting the engines and the electricity. The ship is now powerless, and unsteerable. She grounds briefly in shallow water near Port Gore but strong southerly winds blow her back out to sea.

8.30pm. In total darkness, high winds and driving rain, with the Lermontov nearly on its side, the crew and passengers begin to abandon ship. For two hours, heroic risks are taken to save the mostly older passengers who often have to jump from a small door in the hull down into rescuer’s arms.

At 10.50pm, less than 8 hours after leaving Picton, the Mikhail Lermontov disappears beneath the sea. All passengers and crew - bar one - are alive and safe. It’s a bloody miracle. What happens next is a bloody mess.

Richard Prebble doesn’t remember when he first heard about the sinking of the Mikhail Lermontov. In 1986, he was Transport Minister in the fourth Labour government and shipping was part of his portfolio. While he didn’t know much about the Lermontov at first, Prebble was quickly made aware of the details of the disaster.

Richard Prebble.

Richard Prebble. Photo: SUPPLIED

“Within a day, basically all the facts about the sinking were known,’ says Prebble. ‘Mr Jamison most certainly did give a full account of what happened. Our officials were able to talk to at least some of the Russian officers and all of the accounts lined up.”

A brief, preliminary inquiry is held, conducted by Chief Marine Inspector, Captain S.J. Ponsford. By 6 March 1986, the results are in. The main cause of the sinking was Captain Jamison’s decision to take the Lermontov through the passage at Cape Jackson. End of story.

Or not. This is where - and why – the story gets a bit odd. What happened was clear. But why? Why did Don Jamison take the Lermontov through that shallow passage? Jamison tells the inquiry he is “unable to understand why (he) made the sudden decision to pass through the passage”. Captain Ponsford can’t tell us, either. It’s not his job, he says, and he’s not a psychologist. Wait until the report is released or a full and formal investigation is announced.

But a formal investigation never is announced, mostly because Ponsford’s report doesn’t recommend one. Don Jamison was never prosecuted because of a gap in our law. Believe it or not, a New Zealander piloting a foreign ship in our waters couldn’t then be prosecuted for its loss. It was the first sign that getting to the bottom of the sinking was going to be nearly impossible.

“We had no power to hold anybody,’ says Prebble. We had no power to even question the members of the Russian ship.  It was made very clear to me that there was no way that the Russians were going to submit to a New Zealand inquiry.”

Prebble points out that when it comes to insisting, we weren’t in a very strong position.

“After all, we’d sunk their ship and if they didn’t want us to hold an inquiry, what possible argument could we bring to say that we should?”

The Russians held an inquiry. They also blamed Don Jamison but couldn’t punish him, so they turned on their own people. Captain Vorobyov got a four year suspended sentence and commanded a desk instead of a ship for a very long time. His two senior officers each served four years in a Russian jail.

But the Russians weren’t able to answer the question of why either, and when there’s an information gap, people rush to fill it with rumours and speculation.

At the inquiry, in Wellington, into the sinking of the Russian cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov, 24 February 1986. Includes Marlborough Harbour Board pilot Captain Don Jamison (left foreground), and, to his right, his counsel Mr Alister Macalister.

At the inquiry, in Wellington, into the sinking of the Russian cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov, 24 February 1986. Includes Marlborough Harbour Board pilot Captain Don Jamison (left foreground), and, to his right, his counsel Mr Alister Macalister. Photograph taken by Evening Post staff photographer Ian Mackley.EP/1986/0865-F Photo: Supplied

Some claimed the Lermontov was a spy ship, with KGB officers in the crew – which there almost certainly would have been - there were sensitive materials on board, a Russian sub was nearby when she went down, and so on. There’s one, really good rumour going around. Minders from the Soviet Embassy in Wellington had formed a tight scrum around Captain Vorobyov in the days after the sinking. In news footage from the time, one of those minders resembles everyone’s favourite former KGB officer, President Vladimir Putin. When the footage resurfaced in the 2000s in a documentary called Destination Disaster, rumours flew that Putin must have been stationed in Wellington during the 80’s. The guy does look a lot like Putin. Check it out for yourself on this link.

But fun rumours aside, in 1986 there were serious questions being asked about the sinking. Mostly, why was there no inquiry? One of the loudest voices belonged to Winston Peters, then a National Party MP and the opposition transport spokesperson, who called the whole thing a cover-up.

Richard Prebble cheerfully admits that he sees inquiries as a waste of time and no way to make good policy. He readily concedes to sealing some documents in the National Archive on the grounds that the information in them was readily available elsewhere and the journalist asking for them annoyed him. To this day, Prebble says there was no cover-up; just the reality of trying to deal with the Soviet Union during the Cold War mixed with a little local politics.

It’s fair to say that other people disagree with him. Michael Guerin’s book The Mikhail Lermontov Enigma, raises many uncomfortable points about how the aftermath of the sinking was handled. Tom O’Connor’s Death of a Cruise Ship takes a slightly different tack but still argues that it was in the government’s interest for the issue to disappear quickly.

The report from the preliminary inquiry was released in August 1987. It certainly doesn’t answer the question of why Don Jamison chose to take the Lermontov through the Cape Jackson passage but it does contain a few interesting facts around the day of the sinking to consider.

The first thing to know is that Captain Don Jamison was a tired man. He was Picton Harbourmaster, acting general manager as well as chief pilot and claimed to work on average about 80 hours a week. At the time of the sinking, he was owed 15 weeks leave by the Marlborough Harbour Board.

Jamison had attended a reception that day with the crew of the Mikhail Lermontov and had drunk two glasses of vodka and a beer. He’d also drunk alcohol the day before.

Jamison was acknowledged as a very good and experienced captain and had done this run many, many times. As soon as the ship was past Cape Jackson his job was over for a bit and he was planning to cash in some of his leave by joining the Lermontov as a passenger on its run to Sydney.

Intriguingly, not long into the journey, Jamison had slipped and fallen on the wet deck and suffered a sore neck and back. In the preliminary inquiry, he admitted that he couldn’t recall this accident and had to be reminded of it later. Was he, perhaps, concussed?

So; fatigue, alcohol, possible injury, maybe showing off a bit, maybe being, in his own mind, already half on holiday – it could be all, any one of these things, or none. Of course, sometimes people just make really, really, really bad decisions, because they’re human and that’s what we occasionally do. The only one who can tell us why is Don Jamison.

But you shouldn’t assume he doesn’t feel bad about the accident. Eyewitnesses say Jamison was distraught when he realised what he’d done. Richard Prebble uses the word ‘traumatised’.

A sonar image of the Mikhail Lermontov on the bottom of Port Gore.

A sonar image of the Mikhail Lermontov on the bottom of Port Gore. Photo: Supplied/NIWA Taihoro Nukurangi.

20 years after the sinking, Prebble wrote to the Russian authorities offering to hold a full enquiry into the sinking, to really sort it all out. They said nyet. Three decades later, the Mikhail Lermontov is a diving site and has claimed three more lives.

Don Jamison got his pilot’s license back and worked as a skipper on Cook Strait until he retired. I asked Captain Jamison if he’d like to be interviewed for this story. He very politely said no.

This story was produced using archival audio from Nga Taonga Sound and Vision and from the documentary 'Destination Disaster' by Ninox Television.

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Photo: Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision