“New Zealand Shipwrecks : 195 Years of Disasters at Sea” is an essential occupant on the bookshelf of any student of New Zealand’s maritime history.
First compiled in 1936 by C W N Ingram and P O Wheatley, it has been republished many times. The seventh edition, which came out in 1990, is 516 pages in size and, in unemotive, matter-of-fact language, details every known shipwreck in New Zealand waters since 1795. There is, however, one exceptional departure from this writing style when the book comes to the largest vessel ever to founder on the New Zealand coast: “What possessed pilot Don Jamison to swing the big liner into the narrow passage between Cape Jackson and Cape Jackson lighthouse?” exclaims the entry at top right on page 481. For this particular wrecking did not take place back in the old days of inadequately charted hazards and open bridges with next-to-no navigational aids. In this the year of its 25th anniversary, the loss of the Soviet liner Mikhail Lermontov alongside grazing sheep in a remote bay at the top of New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds is still one of the most bizarre and baffling maritime events to take place anywhere at any time in any sea.
She lies on her starboard side about 1.8 kilometres from shore, resting on a gently-inclined sandy bottom. At low tide the outer edge of the port bridge wing is submerged in just 12 metres’ depth of water. Long after her loss, the great white hull of the Mikhail Lermontov, 176 metres long, could readily be discerned from low-flying aircraft passing across the wide expanse of Port Gore. But today, although the wreck remains completely intact, its white flanks have disappeared under a carpet of marine growth. She is a very nice earner for local dive companies who take hundreds of visitors down to her every year, but the Mikhail Lermontov is not to be toyed with. Professional dive guides are recommended as visibility is often minimal, especially when heavy rain brings silt off the land. Three divers, all of them experienced, have lost their lives inside the wreck. The body of one has never been recovered. Nineteen years old when he died, his remains lie somewhere within the Mikhail Lermontov’s sunken maze along with those of Parvee Zagliadimov, the Russian refrigerating engineer who perished the day she foundered.
The Mikhail Lermontov lived her life and met her death during the long era of the Cold War. Vast and prodigious was the arsenal of warheads, spy satellites, carrier groups and attack submarines deployed against the Soviet naval and merchant fleets. Yet it was in New Zealand, far from the Northern Hemisphere seas where the rival super powers confronted each other, that the Kremlin was dispossessed of its most prestigious merchant vessel. Today it is hard to reconcile the picturesque waters and verdant farmland of Port Gore with what lies just beneath: a huge sunken monument to maritime Soviet Russia.
The last day afloat of the Mikhail Lermontov has been told in a number of books, articles and websites although a full and precise timeline of events has yet to appear. Painted all in white, she was a smart, very handsome ship, fifth and last of the Russian Ivan Franko class of twin-screw, diesel-powered liners which became well known as “the Russian Poets.”
All five were built for the USSR at the shipyard of Mathias-Thesen Werft in Wismar, a port city on the Baltic Sea in what at the time was Soviet-controlled East Germany. Of 19,872 grt as built, the Mikhail Lermontov was launched on 31st December 1970 and completed 26 months later. Port of Registry was Leningrad, where she was managed by the state-owned Baltic Shipping Company. Her callsign was UQTT. The new liner’s maiden voyage, a cruise from Bremerhaven to the Canary Islands, began on 21st April 1972 then on 9th June she embarked on her first trans-Atlantic voyage, which took her to Montreal. A year later she was switched to New York where the Mikhail Lermontov arrived for the first time on 11th June 1973, with passengers from Leningrad, Bremerhaven, London and Le Havre. She continued this service until 1980 when, after the Soviet invasion ofAfghanistan, the United States banned all Soviet ships from its waters.
Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - July 2011 Issue
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