History of the Mikhail Lermontov


A massive thank you to Kevin Dekker for giving me permission to reproduce this information on my site. This guy has put massive amounts of time and effort into researching the Lermontov and writing this.

Vodka on the Rocks

by Kevin Dekker (January 30, 2006)

The building of the Mikhail Lermontov can be traced back to the years just after World War Two when the Soviet Union embarked on a large ship building program, part of which was carried out at the MTW shipyards in Wismar, East Germany.

At 176 metres / 577 feet and with a gross tonnage of 20,500, the Ivan Franko class were the largest passenger ships then built by an East German shipyard. As such they became symbols of the renewed industrial capacity of East Germany.

The final of five Ivan Franko class ships completed was the Mikhail Lermontov which was handed over in March 1972.

As with all Soviet-built merchant ships these ships were designed for rapid conversion to military use. The Ivan Franko class vessels would have made very useful military transports; they featured a hull strengthened for ice, reasonable speed of 20 knots at full maximum, large cargo capacity, vehicle decks, and a very good range of 10,000 miles.

The original design included no less than six large cargo handling cranes arranged in two superimposed pairs forward with another pair aft. The resulting balanced profile with staggered cranes forward gave the ships a purposeful appearance.

The ships were originally fitted out to carry 750 passengers and had a typical crew complement of 330. In 1982 the Mikhail Lermontov received her largest and final facelift. Her cabins were reconfigured to carry only 550 passengers, but in greater comfort.

A summer cruise in the South Pacific

In 1985-86 the Mikhail Lermontov was chartered to travel company 'CTC' for a summer cruising season in the South Pacific with stopovers in Australia and New Zealand. The passengers on cruise number 561 from Sydney included a large contingent of Australians.

She left Sydney on the 7th of February 1986 and visited a number of north eastern New Zealand ports before arriving in Wellington on the 15th of February. A brief stop allowed passengers the opportunity of sightseeing in New Zealand's capital city.

Joining the vessel while she was in Wellington was the Marlborough Harbour Board Pilot and Acting General Manager Captain Don Jamison. He was to pilot the vessel into and out of the restricted waters of the Marlborough Sounds during her visit to Picton on the 16th. He was also qualified to act as Pilot in Milford Sound and it had been arranged that he would carry out this duty under a private contract when the ship reached Fiordland. Just who Jamison was actually working for at various stages of the cruise would later be contested in court as the Baltic Shipping Company sought to recover some of its losses as a result of the sinking. Also joining the ship to assist Jamison was Captain G.F. Neill, Marlborough's Deputy Harbour Master who was receiving pilotage training.

The 52 year old Pilot Captain Jamison had spent 15 years at sea attaining the rank of Chief Officer before coming ashore and working for the Southland Harbour Board as Tug Master and Pilot. In 1970 he was appointed Harbour Master at Picton. He was described as enjoying an excellent reputation with the Soviet Navigators and had previously piloted the Mikhail Lermontov's sister ship Alexander Pushkin into Picton.

A series of decisions to navigate through restricted waters

Leading up to the sinking Jamison had been working long hours including involvement in legal proceedings. He later implied that as a result of his workload he was mentally and physically exhausted when he took the Lermontov out of Picton, but was not aware of his condition at the time. His working day while piloting the ship in and out of Picton was a long one. He had some drinks the night the ship departed Wellington then was up at 5:00 a.m. the following morning to guide the ship in through Tory channel. He was again piloting the ship at 5:37 p.m. that evening over twelve hours later having consumed more alcohol that day.

In command of the ship was captain Vladislav Vorobyov. Since October he had been relieving the regular Captain, Aram Oganov, who was taking long service leave but was due to rejoin the ship on its return to Sydney.

The vessel set sail from Wellington at midnight on the 15th of February. Just before daybreak the following morning she was off the entrance of Tory Channel. The vessel's agent had arranged for a helicopter to take pictures of her steaming through the Marlborough Sounds so the Captain waited until daybreak (7 a.m.) before allowing the Pilot to negotiate the narrow entrance.

Tory Channel was an unusual route inbound to Picton for a ship of the Lermontov's size. Although the scenery here can be impressive, the early morning timing meant most passengers would still be in bed and the dreary weather was not conducive to sightseeing. Most visiting ships of the Lermontov's size used the safer Queen Charlotte Sound route. Taking the vessel in through this narrow channel marked the first of a series of decisions to navigate the ship through restricted waters rather than through the main shipping channels.