The Soviet cruise boat Mikhail Lermontov was grounded on 16 February, 1986 as a result of the harbourmaster’s decision to take it through a narrow passage where the water was too shallow for the size of the ship. The Mikhail Lermontov sank at 10:50pm near Port Gore, in the Marlborough Sounds. One person was killed and 11 others were injured.
The Mikhail Lermontov was a regular cruise boat in New Zealand waters. She had been refitted in 1982 and could carry 550 passengers in comfort. She was the Soviet Union’s prestige liner.
At the time of the shipwreck the Mikhail Lermontov was in the middle of a cruise season which included a number of 11-day cruises.
On 16 February 1986 the Mikhail Lermontov left Picton at 3:10pm, carrying 740 passengers and crew. On board was the Marlborough harbourmaster Don Jamison. The ship headed up Queen Charlotte Sound towards the open sea.
A dangerous decision
The captain had gone to his cabin, leaving Jamison in charge. As the ship neared Cape Jackson, Jamieson took a course to bring the Mikhail Lermontov closer to the cape. The navigator queried the move, believing that this course could take the ship into danger, but Jamieson had decided to take the ship through the 460 metre wide passage between Cape Jackson and its outlying lighthouse. No one notified the captain of the decision.
At about 5:20pm the Mikhail Lermontov, travelling at a speed of 15 knots, grounded on rocks on the right-hand side, suffering severe damage to the hull. The ship kept moving, but as she took on water, rolled to one side.
The captain now returned to the bridge and tried to head towards Port Gore where the Mikhail Lermontov could be beached on the shore, instead of sinking in open water. An hour later the ship had lost all power and drifted onto a sandbank to wait for help. But the incoming tide lifted her off the sandbank into deeper water and she sank at about 10:50pm.
Rescue ships were on the scene quickly. It was raining and the rescue was not easy to carry out. All passengers and crew were taken off, apart from a Russian engineer who was thought to have drowned when the Lermontov first hit the rocks. His body was not recovered.
The passengers were taken by a tanker and an inter-island ferry to Wellington the next morning. Only 11 had minor injuries.
How many died?
1 person died and 11 were injured.
Other events and outcomes
A preliminary inquiry found that Jamison was operating outside the limits of the Marlborough Harbour Board pilot area, but in an area he knew extremely well. For some unknown reason he had tried to take the Mikhail Lermontov through a narrow passage where the water was too shallow for the size of the ship. Jamison’s only explanation was that he was suffering from mental and physical exhaustion after working 80 hours a week for the previous four months.
The Minister of Transport at the time, Richard Prebble, decided not to hold a formal inquiry. Don Jamison later refused to speak publicly about the loss of the ship, but surrendered his pilot’s licence. The Soviet authorities held their own inquiry and the captain of the Mikhail Lermontov was given a suspended four-year prison sentence.
A settlement was made out of court between the Marlborough Harbour Board and the ship’s owners for damages.
The wreck could not be salvaged, but oil from her tanks was recovered over the next two months. Since then three people have died while diving on the wreck.
More information and sources
- New Zealand shipwrecks: 195 years of disasters at sea, C. W. N. Ingram, Auckland, 1990.
- The wreck book, Steve Locker-Lampson, Auckland, 1994.
- Shipwrecks and maritime disasters, Gavin McLean, Wellington, 1991.
- Lermontov sinking still lures conspiracy buffs The New Zealand Herald, February 16 2006
- Search our catalogue for more about the sinking of the Mikhail Lermontov.
- Watch a documentary online at NZ On Screen: Destination Disaster: The Sinking of the Mikhail Lermontov, Television, 2000.