1986: Mysterious sinking of Mickhail Lermontov
Why did the master of a Russian cruise ship fail to contact local coast radio stations as his ship was sinking, choosing instead to communicate with a station in his homeland 10,000 miles away?
By David Smith
A few years ago a radio technician showed me a dirty and corroded East German MT50 telegraph key, which his neighbour had salvaged while diving on the wreck of the cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov.
The ship sank in an isolated bay on the sparsely populated northern coast of the South Island of New Zealand. One crew member died at the time of the grounding, but the remaining crew and passengers were all rescued.
As I inspected the Morse key, I thought: “Could this key have helped save 738 lives?”
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The Mikhail Lermontov, which had been built in East Germany in 1972, sailed from Picton at 1500 hours. The local Harbourmaster and senior harbour pilot, Captain Don Jamison, had arranged that he would pilot the ship out of Picton and again at Milford Sound. For the rest of the cruise to Sydney he would be on leave and would be a passenger.
Just 15 minutes after leaving Picton, the 20,027 ton ship nearly grounded in Shakespeare Bay due to the pilot being unaware that power to the bow-thrusters had been switched off.
The vessel was quickly underway again, but at 1530 the ship’s Master, Captain Vladislav Vorobyov, warned the pilot about navigating too close to the shore.
Around 1630, Assistant Harbourmaster Gary Neill, who had been receiving pilotage instruction, disembarked onto the pilot launch and Captain Vorobyov left the bridge to get changed out of damp clothing.
At approximately 1720 the vessel had reached the ‘pilotage limit’ and Captain Jamison concluded his spoken commentary to the passengers. As Captain Vorobyov had not returned to the bridge and the officer of the watch did not assume control, Captain Jamison continued to supervise the navigation of the vessel.
When the vessel was four nautical miles from Cape Jackson lighthouse, the pilot made an instantaneous decision to deviate from the agreed course, meaning that the ship would now have to pass between the headland and the lighthouse. Mikhail Lermontov struck the bottom at 1737 local time.
At 1801 Captain Jamison called Picton Harbour Radio on VHF channel 16 saying:
This is a mayday situation – the Mikhail Lermontov – we have struck a rock at Cape Jackson and we are proceeding to Port Gore. Would you please advise Wellington we will require emergency services. The vessel is in danger of sinking – the vessel is in danger of sinking. Making water. Proceeding to Port Gore.This message was overheard by Wellington Radio – ZLW and the LPG coastal tanker Tarihiko – ZMLP.
As this ‘Mayday situation’ message was being sent, the inter-island ferry Arahura – ZMBS was on her way from Wellington to Picton. On the bridge of Arahura, Second Officer James was monitoring channel 16 when he heard ZLW say “Received Mayday,” and from subsequent transmissions James learned that the cruise ship was in trouble. Arahura called ZLW on 2182kHz, gave their position and stated that they were just over an hour away from the stricken vessel.