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
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
As I inspected the Morse key, I thought: “Could this key have helped save 738 lives?”
, which had been built in East Germany
in 1972, sailed from Picton at 1500 hours. The local Harbourmaster and
senior harbour pilot,
, 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
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.
, warned the pilot about navigating too close to the shore.
had been receiving pilotage instruction, disembarked onto the pilot
launch and Captain Vorobyov left the bridge to get changed out of damp
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.
struck the bottom at 1737 local time.
was on her way from Wellington to Picton. On the bridge of
was monitoring channel 16 when he heard ZLW say “Received Mayday,” and
from subsequent transmissions James learned that the cruise ship was in
called ZLW on 2182kHz, gave their position and stated that they were just over an hour away from the stricken vessel.
immediately plotted new
courses towards the cruise ship, but at 1846 Captain Vorobyov ordered
the pilot to cancel the Mayday message.
, the R/O on Arahura
repeatedly called the Mikhail Lermontov
on 500 kHz, but got no reply. The area where these vessels were sailing
is known as the Marlborough Sounds, which are deep inlets surrounded by
high hills. Naturally, VHF communication proved difficult.
Aboard Mikhail Lermontov
, Captain Vorobyov had plans that
did not involve any rescue craft or coast radio stations. He intended to
beach his ship, transfer the passengers and crew ashore, and then bus
them to the town of Blenheim. He could not have known that an overland
trip to Blenheim would take at least four hours and much of the trip
would be on rough farm tracks and unsealed roads.
With the exception of one link call on R/T to the local Russian
Embassy, all local communications from the ship were conducted by the
New Zealand pilot on Channel 16 using the VHF radio that was installed
on the starboard side of the bridge. Other than calling ZLW to set up
the link call, there is no record of any of the officers or crew of the Mikhail Lermontov
attempting to communicate with any local coast station, ship station or rescue craft.
Hopgood, the Arahura’s
R/O, asked ZLW to ask Mikhail Lermontov
to communicate with them on 2182kHz. This message was passed to the cruise ship via VHF. The pilot replied:
I’m not sure where 2182 is. I’ll see if I can locate it and if I get the chance I’ll call Arahura.
The radio room on the Mikhail Lermontov
was actually very close, being along a short passageway off the chart room.
was very well equipped with radio
equipment. In 1972 the ship had visited London and a newspaper reporter
was alarmed by the number of radio aerials on the ship. His published
story said that, based on the photographs, Whitehall experts had
confirmed that the radio equipment carried was in excess of that needed
for a passenger liner – implying that the ship was involved in spying.
This was possibly journalistic hype. In 1986 the main radio room was
equipped with three teletype receivers, Satcom teletype equipment,
Satcom telephone equipment, HF transmitter, HF receiver, MF transmitter,
MF receiver, emergency receiver, “Corvette” transmitter (not in use),
weather facsimile receiver and other equipment. The emergency radio room
contained both MF and HF transmitters and receivers. Number-nine
lifeboat had a W/T and R/T installation and there were five portable
emergency radios onboard (apparently set to VHF channel 17). There were
two VHF radios on the bridge.
When the ship struck, R/O Derkachenko
was on watch and he was soon joined by the three other radio officers. Chief R/O Moskovkin
ordered R/O Anatoliy Krutkov
to establish communication with Vladivostok and R/O Fyodorov
and R/O Derkachenko to check the equipment for which they were responsible. W/T contact with Vladivostok was established, with Mikhail Lermontov – UQTT
using 22236 kHz and Vladivostok Radio – UFL
using 22435 kHz. UQTT then changed to 22273 kHz and UFL transmitted on 16955 kHz.
The Chief R/O established contact with the Russian Embassy in nearby
Wellington, initially using 2474 kHz / 2601 kHz via ZLW and subsequently
the Captain talked to Mr Ivanchishin
, the local
Russian Ambassador using the satellite radiotelephone. Shortly
afterwards, the satellite radio-telephone was used to contact Mr Chistov
the Deputy President of the Baltic Shipping Line in Leningrad and this
was followed by a radio-telegram sent by W/T to Radio Leningrad via
Vladivostok. It is interesting to note that R/O Krutkov omitted the
“number of words” in the telegram preamble as he said that there was not
enough time to count them!
After transmitting this telegram, the ship’s main power supply failed
and the emergency supply cut in. R/O Derkachenko was already manning
the emergency radio room when the main radio equipment ceased to
function. After asking the Captain for further instructions, CR/O
Moskovkin ordered his staff to take the radio log and go to their
abandon-ship muster stations. R/O Fyodorov took the log with him to the
number-nine lifeboat. R/O Krutov was assigned to No. 1 lifeboat, but
instead of going to muster stations he went to the emergency radio room,
which was by that time deserted.
Remembering the frequencies that UFL had designated earlier, Krutov
established communication with Vladivostok. The signal from UFL was very
weak (QSA1 to QSA2), and even fainter when 12955 kHz was tried. Staff
Captain Georgy Melnik
appeared at the door and said: “The Captain has given instructions for the SOS signal to be sent.”
Krutov keyed SOS on 22273 kHz
telling UFL that the passengers and crew were abandoning ship into the
lifeboats but he did not have the exact ship’s position. UFL constantly
interrupted to say that they were having trouble receiving and UQTT did
not receive an acknowledgement for the SOS message.
Krutov then went to the port wing of the bridge and reported to
Captain Vorobyov that an SOS message had been transmitted. The Captain
ordered him to abandon ship.
Krutov said that as far as he knew there were no other distress
signals transmitted on W/T, R/T or VHF. It is amazing that the SOS was
sent to a coast station 10,000 miles distant when ZLW was just 35 miles
Following the cancellation of the Pilot’s ‘Mayday situation’ message, Arahura
had proceeded to the nearby port of Picton to discharge passengers and vehicles.
Luckily, Captain John Reedman
of the LPG tanker Tarihiko
had chosen to ignore advice to proceed with his voyage, and so was close to the stricken vessel.
was not equipped with wireless telegraphy so their
radio communications were conducted from the bridge. Realising the
severity of the situation, the ship’s electrician placed a cassette
recorder next to the VHF radio to record the radio traffic and bridge
Despite the Russian captain never reactivating the Mayday status, or
even issuing a Pan message, at 2014 the Wellington Rescue Co-ordination
Centre ordered Arahura
to proceed at full speed to the distress scene. Arahura
had left Picton 19 minutes earlier, bound for Wellington and she arrived close to the Mikhail Lermontov
at 2135, immediately assuming control as the on-scene co-ordination vessel.
Attempts to beach the ship were unsuccessful and at 2250 hours she sank some distance from the shore.
The passengers and surviving crew had been transferred by lifeboats to Tarihiko
lowered her own lifeboats to the waterline, the survivors transferred from the liner’s lifeboats to Arahura’s
boats, which were then winched up to the level of the boat deck. Due to
shortage of manpower, Radio Officer David Hopgood ceased radio watch
and assisted embarking the rescued passengers and crew.
The passengers were mainly Australian senior-citizens. One man was
laughing uncontrollably and proved difficult to get aboard. David
resorted to slapping him across the face and said: “Why are you
The Australian ignored the physical treatment and replied “I’ve been
on the piss (i.e. booze) ever since leaving Sydney ten days ago and now
my wine bill is sitting at the bottom of the sea!”
, being the on-site control vessel, tried
unsuccessfully to open a direct link with the Rescue Control Coordinator
in Wellington, using the ship’s ‘Sea Phone’. The Sea Phone was a VHF
service run by the ship’s owners through a repeater on Hawkins Hill
overlooking Cook Strait. It connected five onboard telephones directly
to the New Zealand Railways telephone network, and calls could be linked
through to the Post Office telephone system. It performed very well in
Cook Strait, but could be unreliable in the Marlborough Sounds area.
By the time the last survivor was rescued, there were several other
vessels on the scene. These included a Navy patrol vessel, two cement
carriers, a police launch and a number of fishing and pleasure boats.
Shore communications were being handled by Wellington Radio – ZLW, Picton Harbour Radio and Cape Jackson Radio – ZLJU.
Cape Jackson Radio was a privately owned station that supported local
inshore fishing vessels, usually using VHF channels 16 and 63. The
operators were members of the Baker family. This family had seen the Mikhail Lermontov
sail past their farmhouse a little earlier and had called the pilot on channel 16 to tell him what a grand sight it was.
They were preparing to sit down for their evening meal when they
heard the distant noise of the ship grounding. After hearing the pilot’s
message to Picton Harbour Radio, they relayed to the pilot information
about the best place to beach the vessel.
, along with two other family members,
grabbed a portable VHF radio and went on their farm bikes to high ground
overlooking Port Gore to relay information regarding the ship. Tony and Betty Baker
remained at their radio console, keeping constant watch until well into
the next day. Knowing nearly all the skippers and captains personally,
they were kept very busy relaying traffic.
Tony and Betty’s expertise in radio operating and in directing the
two dozen local fishing vessels engaged in rescue operations was
absolutely essential for the success of this operation. Tony and Betty
Baker were later awarded Queen’s Service Medals.
Picton Harbour Radio was being manned by Police Constable Bill Gibb
(who had at one time been in the Merchant Navy) and Assistant Harbour
Master Gary Neill, who had just arrived back on the pilot launch from
the cruise ship.
At 1915, Navy patrol vessel HMNZS Taupo – ZMZN
was proceeding out of Wellington harbour under the command of 26 year old Lt. Peter Batcheler
. Aboard Taupo
, radio operator APO David Trigg
received a signal from Naval HQ directing them to the distress scene.
Due to the other vessels being in the shadow of Cape Jackson, HMNZS Taupo
began working as a radio relay station. When it appeared that she might be needed as a tug, Taupo
raced towards the stricken vessel at 19 knots and passed the radio relay duties to the cement carrier Golden Bay – GZAS
kept in contact with ZLW and Arahura
on 2182kHz. Taupo
also called Mikhail Lermontov
on 2182kHz and Channel 16, but could not contact the vessel.
All of the rescue vessels were equipped with VHF R/T and all the ships and some of the boats were equipped with MF R/T. Only Mikhail Lermontov
and Wellington Radio could communicate on the 405 –525kHz W/T band. Although HMNZS Taupo
was fitted with wireless telegraphy, she could not transmit W/T on MF
At 1937, Tarihiko
logged the weather as “Wind SE 25 knots,
moderate to heavy driving rain, visibility 2 to 3 miles, with seas
choppy in Port Gore”. Later that evening, visibility decreased, there
was no moon and many of those at the helm of lifeboats and other small
craft were having trouble navigating their boats.
R/O, David Hopgood, reported: “The evacuation
results could easily have been reversed if the weather had continued to
356 of the Mikhail Lermontov’s
passengers and crew were transferred to Tarihiko
and another 381 were transferred to the larger Arahura
. One Australian man who had fallen from a lifeboat was rescued by HMNZS Taupo
The rescuers had great difficulty determining the number of people who
had been aboard the cruise liner and were also having trouble counting
With the survivors embarked, David Hopgood returned to Arahura’s
radio room. Suddenly the door burst open and in came Captain Vorobyov,
accompanied by the Communist Party representative. “Get Vladivostok on
the phone,” he ordered. Arahura
was equipped with HF R/T and
the request was quite feasible, but Hopgood decided that a phone patch
through to the local Russian Embassy might be a better idea.
Afterwards, Captain Vorobyov went to the bridge and requested to use
the VHF to communicate with the portable radios carried by his officers.
He gave instructions for a crew role call to be carried out.
Just after midnight David Hopgood keyed a message to ZLW, which
stated that 37 passengers from the cruise liner were unaccounted for. It
was assumed that one lifeboat was missing. It was not until several
hours later that it was discovered that the passenger list had not been
updated since the vessel left Auckland and thus was quite inaccurate.
At 0157 Arahura
left for Wellington and the cement carrier Milburn Carrier – ZMER
took over as on-scene control vessel.
One of the busiest men that night was Captain John Reedman of Tarihiko
His was the first vessel on the scene and there were hundreds of radio
messages to and from his vessel. The vessel arrived with her two motor
lifeboats swung out, ready to be launched. It appeared to them that the
liner was attempting (unsuccessfully) to ferry passengers ashore.
Captain Reedman later said: “To my absolute amazement I received a
message from the pilot aboard the Mikhail Lermontov
saying that the
Master did not wish to use our lifeboats.”
Fifty minutes later, he decided to ignore this and launched the port
lifeboat. The liner’s lifeboats started arriving on their starboard
side, so their other lifeboat was not launched.
Staff Captain Georgy Melnik was in charge of one of the lifeboats and before he took the lifeboat back to Mikhail Lermontov
, he went to Tarihiko’s
bridge to use their VHF radio (presumably on channel 17) to communicate
with Captain Vorobyov. At one time it was suggested that Tarihiko
also take on the role of radio relay between 2182kHz and Channel 16.
However this was not possible as the vessel only had a crew of 18 and in
the circumstances there was nobody available to undertake the task. All
of Captain Reedman’s officers and many of his crew were either manning
the vessel’s port lifeboat or engaged in embarking the rescued aboard.
He was doing an amazing job navigating his vessel in the confined
waters, having to keep a very busy radio watch and also be host to 356
At 2120 ZLW called saying that they had two messages for the Tarihiko
on 2MHz. Tarihiko
replied that they were too shorthanded to receive them.
Chief R/O Moskovkin was one of those aboard Tarihiko
went to the bridge asking to speak to the Russian Ambassador on VHF.
Captain Reedman relayed this, but ZLW declined the request, saying: “You
would need Radphone to do that.”
The following night, after Tarihiko
had resumed her voyage,
the BBC was successful in getting a Radfone call through to the ship,
presumably to interview her Master. Captain John Reedman’s efforts were
recognised and he was later awarded the Queen’s Service Medal.
arrived in Wellington before
dawn the next morning. The passengers and crew were disembarked –
Captain Vorobyov being escorted ashore by Communist Party officials,
while Captain Jamison slipped ashore unnoticed. The crew were flown back
to Russia and most of the passengers back to Australia.
- Captain Jamison surrendered his Pilot’s Licence, but got it back
later. He returned to his job as Harbourmaster and later went back to
- Captain Vorobyov was eventually permitted to return to sea and a few
years ago was in command of a cargo vessel on the African coast.
- Following an enquiry by Soviet officials, the Chief Navigator,
Sergey Stephanishchev, who was on the bridge at the time of the
grounding, received a four-year suspended prison sentence.
A preliminary enquiry was held in Wellington, but possibly due to
political pressure and secret negotiations, no public court of enquiry
The day after the disaster, R/O David Hopgood prepared a report for his Captain
. The conclusion of his report reads:
The above statement covers serious areas, but without a full discussion, (they) could easily be swept under the carpet.
These were prophetic words from the Arahura’s
Radio Officer –
for many of the problems relating to the incident did get swept under
the carpet and then the edges of the carpet were firmly nailed down!
If a similar incident happened in the future, then because of
GMDSS, VHF repeaters, cell-phones, satellite links, etc, perhaps the
rescue would be easier to co-ordinate. A colleague who is employed as a
tutor in maritime radio communication procedures disagrees with this,
saying that the skill level of those operating radio aboard ships is
lower than it was in 1986.
History of the Mikhail Lermontov
The Last Cruise of the Mikhail Lermontov
150 Years of News: Nightmare cruise on the Mikhail Lermontov
The five “Poet Class” Soviet cruise ships
Documentary: Destination Disaster
Shipwreck Tales: Mikhail Lermontov
And to see the illustrations that accompanied this fascinating story
maritimeradio.org: the mysterious sinking of the Mickhail Lermontov
With thanks to Dave Shirlaw