At 3 PM on 16 February 1986, one of the Soviet Union’s premiere passenger cruisers, the Mikhail Lermontov, left Picton Harbour on the falling tide southbound for Milford Sound before it was due to cross back over the Tasman Sea to Sydney, Australia. On board were 408 passengers, 370 of whom were elderly Australians who, up to that point, were on the pleasure cruise of a lifetime. The MS Mikhail Lermontov, one of five sister ships, was built in the East German Baltic port of Wismar by V.E.B. Mathias-Thesen Werft in 1972. At 20,000 tonnes, she was 155 metres in length with a beam of 23.6 metres and a draught of 7.8 metres. With a crew of 330, for a total complement of 738 passengers and crew – and equipped with five bars, a library, gymnasium, sauna and swimming pool, along with two hair salons and various shops – the Mikhail Lermontov was built for luxurious cruising. Named after the great Russian Romantic novelist and poet, Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov, who died tragically young in a duel at the age of 26, the Lermontov after just 14 years at sea would, unfortunately, not outlast its namesake.
On this fateful day in her sailing career, Harbourmaster and eminently experienced pilot, Captain Don Jamison took command of the Mikhail Lermontov out of Picton as the ship’s Captain Vladislav Vorobyov retired to his cabin. Deciding to give the passengers a ride to remember, Jamison took the mighty cruise ship along the shoreline, sometimes too close for the remaining bridge crew’s comfort. Then, in a moment of madness that Captain Jamison would later blame on his overworked exhaustion, this otherwise exemplary pilot decided to sail the large cruise liner between the cliffs of Cape Jackson and the craggy reef of Jackson Head, despite knowing this narrow passage to be far too shallow for the ship’s draught. Alarmed by the sight of whitewater, the Soviet crew protested too late and at 5:37 PM, travelling at 15 knots, the Mikhail Lermontov struck rocks portside, 5.5 metres below her waterline, tearing the hull open in three places and leaving her hopelessly stricken.
Captain Vorobyov relieved his ashen faced pilot and with the ship fast taking on water, turned for the safety of Port Gore. By 8:30 PM she was listing badly to starboard and the passengers were ordered to abandon ship. In what has been described as a Dunkirk-style rescue, the crew helped transfer the passengers onto dozens of local boats as well as the LPG tanker Tarihiko and the inter-island ferry Arahura, with some passengers even swimming ashore. Almost five hours after hitting the reef – with Vorobyov failing to run the ship aground in shallow water, and just 20 minutes after the last passenger was rescued – the pride of the Soviet cruise liners, the Mikhail Lermontov sank to the bottom of Port Gore bay, coming to rest on its starboard side at a depth of 38 metres.
In the chaos that followed, divers were sent down to check lifeboats for bodies, searching for the lone crewman, 33 year-old engineer Pavel Zagladimov, who went down with the ship; his body was never recovered. Divers also retrieved the ship’s bell, and even a number of AK-74 assault rifles and ceremonial helmets, all of which officials from the Soviet embassy were eager to take possession of. Roger Lauder was one such diver, photographed here diving on one of the Mikhail Lermontov lifeboats. Having retrieved the lifeboat compass, some years later he gifted it to the then Lyttelton Museum where it resides now, a reminder of the largest shipwreck in the history of Te Waipounamu South Island.