Port Gore, New Zealand
The Mikhail Lermontov was one of five ships built in built in Wismar, Germany for the Baltic Shipping Company, owned by the USSR. Launched in 1972 into the Baltic Sea, the new vessel was 155 metres long, 23.6 metres wide and had a gross tonnage of 20,351 tons. Powered by two 7,723Kw diesel engines driving twin props. In the mid-1980s she had a refit at a cost of £11,000,000, there was a pool, cinema, beauty salon, one restaurant, five bars, shops, library, disco, and a lounge where shows were staged. The ship was capable of carrying 550 passengers, every cabin had private facilities, and had a compliment of 330 crew.
The ship sank on 16 Feb 1986 after hitting a reef between Cape Jackson and its light on Walker rock at the seaward end of the Marlborough Sound. One crew member was lost in the sinking out of the 740 passengers and crew, that were on board. The circumstances of the sinking are a bit of a mystery, the gap between the cape and the lighthouse is 50m maximum (we went through it in the dive boat) and it is marked on the chart as a submerged reef. The ship was in the hands of the Marlborough Sound pilot Captain Don Jamison, an experienced skipper, who knew the local area well, and the sea conditions were perfect. The subsequent enquiry was held behind closed doors and acknowledged the above facts and the pilot (who still works in the area) has not commented on the sinking since, calls for a public enquiry have been rejected. The pilot admitted to having a glass of wine and a couple of vodka's over a meal with the ships captain 3 hours before setting sail from Picton, but the enquiry stated that drink was not a factor. The ship took an unorthodox course up Marlborough Sound as part of a "sightseeing" tour laid on by the pilot. After leaving Picton Wharf the ship backed into the adjacent Shakespeare Bay so the passengers could see the wreck of the Edwin Fox, stopping only 30 metres from land before continuing on its course up the sound. The ship continued up the western edge of Queen Charlotte sound at a speed of 15 knots manouvering into ship cove (one of Captain Cooks landing sites) getting as close as 182 metres from it. Finally rounding the cape and attempting the narrow channel between the cape and the light.
The outcome of this course of action was one life lost, the soviet captain Vladislav Vorobyov ended up skippering a small coastal freighter and New Zealand has a great wreck dive. Because the pilot has remained silent, a number of theories into the sinking have been circulated. My favourite was that it was a KGB plot to sink a submarine homing beacon to map the pacific approaches. Some local skippers believe that the passage between the Cape and its lighthouse would be possible to someone with the right skill and knowledge, and that the pilot was showing off. Jet boating with a bigger boat. Others believe that the vodkas were probably large ones.
The dive itself is staggering because the ship is so large and intact. The ship is lying on its starboard side in 35m of water. The shot ends at about 15m with a great open window with some ropes going inside into darkness. On the first dive we went up a couple of decks and followed the companion way towards the stern of the wreck. All the lifeboat davits were empty and the wooden decking was still in place and in very good condition. Most of the windows were in place but every now and again we would pass an open one which called out like a siren "come inside". We then descended and came around underneath the stern to view the existing prop (not bronze so still in-place). Before swimming back along a different companion way to the shot. The second dive concentrated on the pointy bit going to the anchors and the forward storage area and returning via the bridge over the top to attempt to find the swimming pool. The visibility was 8m and the size and location of the wreck made for conditions very similar to Scapa Flow. This is a wreck the size of the battleships but very clean and completely intact and no guns. The temptation to go inside was very strong, but with hired diving gear and not knowing my buddy, (even though he was experienced), or the ship well enough it was a temptation that I could hold back from. We did plan a small swim through the bridge on the second dive but by the time we finished the search for the pool, air was too low to contemplate it. Even after two dives we did not cover the entire superstructure and I was disappointed to miss the swimming pool.
My imagination was fired by an article in Diver that was written shortly after the ship had sunk. The idea of diving such an intact, large and new passenger ship was very attractive at that time and I decided then that if I ever got to New Zealand I would make every effort to do so. I was not disappointed, the sheer scale of the ship as well as the fact that it was a civilian ship made for a sense of "spookyness" that I have only ever experienced once before. This would have to rate as one of the best dives that I have ever been on.
The statistics about the ship and the facts about its last voyage are taken principally from Michael McFayden's excellent dive guide, and a video of a recent New Zealand TV documentary about the ship wreck.
Organising such a dive was something else, and I would have to thank Nick from Alison Wonderland Charters for answering my original E-mails, and putting me on the telephone trail, which ended at Bill from Divers World Picton, who sorted kit hire and my buddy David Howes a BSAC diver from Hereford. The charter skipper was Jim Brodie a commercial diver from Banbury (again organised through Divers World). We had a warm welcome with Kathy our hostel manager who managed to sort out a video of the documentary about the sinking of the ship. Special thanks go to Vivian for letting me go off diving for a day of our honeymoon.