Why did the master of a Russian cruise ship fail to contact local coast radio stations as his ship was sinking, choosing instead to communicate with a station in his homeland 10,000 miles away?
By David Smith
A few years ago a radio technician showed me a dirty and corroded East German MT50 telegraph key, which his neighbour had salvaged while diving on the wreck of the cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov.
The 155-metre-long vessel had grounded and then foundered on the 16th of February 1986 shortly after leaving the New Zealand port of Picton.
The ship sank in an isolated bay on the sparsely populated northern coast of the South Island of New Zealand. One crew member died at the time of the grounding, but the remaining crew and passengers were all rescued.
As I inspected the Morse key, I thought: “Could this key have helped save 738 lives?”
Mikhail Lermontov, which had been built in East Germany in 1972, sailed from Picton at 1500 hours. The local Harbourmaster and senior harbour pilot, Captain Don Jamison, had arranged that he would pilot the ship out of Picton and again at Milford Sound. For the rest of the cruise to Sydney he would be on leave and would be a passenger.
Just 15 minutes after leaving Picton, the 20,027 ton ship nearly grounded in Shakespeare Bay due to the pilot being unaware that power to the bow-thrusters had been switched off.
The vessel was quickly underway again, but at 1530 the ship’s Master, Captain Vladislav Vorobyov, warned the pilot about navigating too close to the shore.
Around 1630, Assistant Harbourmaster Gary Neill, who had been receiving pilotage instruction, disembarked onto the pilot launch and Captain Vorobyov left the bridge to get changed out of damp clothing.
At approximately 1720 the vessel had reached the ‘pilotage limit’ and Captain Jamison concluded his spoken commentary to the passengers. As Captain Vorobyov had not returned to the bridge and the officer of the watch did not assume control, Captain Jamison continued to supervise the navigation of the vessel.
When the vessel was four nautical miles from Cape Jackson lighthouse, the pilot made an instantaneous decision to deviate from the agreed course, meaning that the ship would now have to pass between the headland and the lighthouse. Mikhail Lermontov struck the bottom at 1737 local time.
At 1801 Captain Jamison called Picton Harbour Radio on VHF Channel 16 saying:
“This is a mayday situation – the Mikhail Lermontov – we have struck a rock at Cape Jackson and we are proceeding to Port Gore. Would you please advise Wellington we will require emergency services. The vessel is in danger of sinking – the vessel is in danger of sinking. Making water. Proceeding to Port Gore.”
This message was overheard by Wellington Radio – ZLW and the LPG coastal tanker Tarihiko – ZMLP.
As this ‘Mayday situation’ message was being sent, the inter-island ferry Arahura – ZMBS was on her way from Wellington to Picton. On the bridge of Arahura, Second Officer James was monitoring Channel 16 when he heard ZLW say “Received Mayday,” and from subsequent transmissions James learned that the cruise ship was in trouble. Arahura called ZLW on 2182kHz, gave their position and stated that they were just over an hour away from the stricken vessel.
Arahura and Tarihiko immediately plotted new courses towards the cruise ship, but at 1846 Captain Vorobyov ordered the pilot to cancel the Mayday message.
David Hopgood, the R/O on Arahura, repeatedly called Mikhail Lermontov on 500 kHz, but got no reply. The area where these vessels were sailing is known as the Marlborough Sounds, which are deep inlets surrounded by high hills. Naturally, VHF communication proved difficult.
Aboard Mikhail Lermontov, Captain Vorobyov had plans that did not involve any rescue craft or coast radio stations. He intended to beach his ship, transfer the passengers and crew ashore, and then bus them to the town of Blenheim. He could not have known that an overland trip to Blenheim would take at least four hours and much of the trip would be on rough farm tracks and unsealed roads.
With the exception of one link call on R/T to the local Russian Embassy, all local communications from the ship were conducted by the New Zealand pilot on Channel 16 using the VHF radio that was installed on the starboard side of the bridge. Other than calling ZLW to set up the link call, there is no record of any of the officers or crew of Mikhail Lermontov attempting to communicate with any local coast station, ship station or rescue craft.
Hopgood, Arahura’s R/O, asked ZLW to ask Mikhail Lermontov to communicate with them on 2182kHz. This message was passed to the cruise ship via VHF. The Pilot replied:
“I’m not sure where 2182 is. I’ll see if I can locate it and if I get the chance I’ll call Arahura.”
The radio room on Mikhail Lermontov was actually very close, being along a short passageway off the chart room.
Mikhail Lermontov was very well equipped with radio equipment. In 1972 the ship had visited London and a newspaper reporter was alarmed by the number of radio aerials on the ship. His published story said that, based on the photographs, Whitehall experts had confirmed that the radio equipment carried was in excess of that needed for a passenger liner – implying that the ship was involved in spying.
This was possibly journalistic hype. In 1986 the main radio room was equipped with three teletype receivers, Satcom teletype equipment, Satcom telephone equipment, HF transmitter, HF receiver, MF transmitter, MF receiver, emergency receiver, “Corvette” transmitter (not in use), weather facsimile receiver and other equipment. The emergency radio room contained both MF and HF transmitters and receivers. Number-nine lifeboat had a W/T and R/T installation and there were five portable emergency radios onboard (apparently set to VHF channel 17). There were two VHF radios on the bridge.
When the ship struck, R/O Derkachenko was on watch, and he was soon joined by the three other radio officers. Chief R/O Moskovkin ordered R/O Anatoliy Krutkov to establish communication with Vladivostok and R/O Fyodorov and R/O Derkachenko to check the equipment for which they were responsible. W/T contact with Vladivostok was established, with Mikhail Lermontov – UQTT using 22236 kHz and Vladivostok Radio – UFL using 22435 kHz. UQTT then changed to 22273 kHz and UFL transmitted on 16955 kHz.
The Chief R/O established contact with the Russian Embassy in nearby Wellington, initially using 2474 kHz / 2601 kHz via ZLW and subsequently the Captain talked to Mr Ivanchishin, the local Russian Ambassador using the satellite radiotelephone. Shortly afterwards, the satellite radiotelephone was used to contact Mr Chistov, Deputy President of Baltic Shipping Line in Leningrad, and this was followed by a radiotelegram sent by W/T to Radio Leningrad via Vladivostok. It is interesting to note that R/O Krutkov omitted the “number of words” in the telegram preamble as he said that there was not enough time to count them!
After transmitting this telegram, the ship’s main power supply failed and the emergency supply cut in. R/O Derkachenko was already manning the emergency radio room when the main radio equipment ceased to function. After asking the Captain for further instructions, CR/O Moskovkin ordered his staff to take the radio log and go to their abandon-ship muster stations. R/O Fyodorov took the log with him to the No. 9 lifeboat. R/O Krutov was assigned to No. 1 lifeboat, but instead of going to muster stations he went to the emergency radio room, which was by that time deserted.
Remembering the frequencies that UFL had designated earlier, Krutov established communication with Vladivostok. The signal from UFL was very weak (QSA1 to QSA2), and even fainter when 12955 kHz was tried. Staff Captain Georgy Melnik appeared at the door and said: “The Captain has given instructions for the SOS signal to be sent.”
Krutov keyed SOS on 22273 kHz, telling UFL that the passengers and crew were abandoning ship into the lifeboats but he did not have the exact ship’s position. UFL constantly interrupted to say that they were having trouble receiving and UQTT did not receive an acknowledgment of the SOS message.
Krutov then went to the port wing of the bridge and reported to Captain Vorobyov that an SOS message had been transmitted. The Captain ordered him to abandon ship.
Krutov said later that as far as he knew there were no other distress signals transmitted on W/T, R/T or VHF. It is amazing that the SOS was sent to a coast station 10,000 miles distant, when ZLW was just 35 miles away.
Following the cancellation of the Pilot’s ‘Mayday situation’ message, Arahura had proceeded to the nearby port of Picton to discharge passengers and vehicles.
Luckily, Captain John Reedman of the LPG tanker Tarihiko had chosen to ignore advice to proceed with his voyage, and so was close to the stricken vessel.
Tarihiko was not equipped with wireless telegraphy so their radio communications were conducted from the bridge. Realising the severity of the situation, the ship’s electrician placed a cassette recorder next to the VHF radio to record the radio traffic and bridge orders.
Despite the Russian captain never reactivating the Mayday status, or even issuing a Pan message, at 2014 the Wellington Rescue Co-ordination Centre ordered Arahura to proceed at full speed to the distress scene. Arahura had left Picton 19 minutes earlier, bound for Wellington and she arrived close to Mikhail Lermontov at 2135, immediately assuming control as the on-scene co-ordination vessel.
Attempts to beach the ship were unsuccessful and at 2250 hours she sank some distance from the shore.
The passengers and surviving crew had been transferred by lifeboats to Tarihiko and Arahura.
Arahura lowered her own lifeboats to the waterline, the survivors transferred from the liner’s lifeboats to Arahura’s boats, which were then winched up to the level of the boat deck. Due to shortage of manpower, Radio Officer Hopgood ceased radio watch and assisted embarking the rescued passengers and crew.
The passengers were mainly Australian senior citizens. One man was laughing uncontrollably and proved difficult to get aboard. David resorted to slapping him across the face and said: “Why are you laughing?”
The Australian ignored the physical treatment and replied “I’ve been on the piss (i.e. booze) ever since leaving Sydney ten days ago and now my wine bill is sitting at the bottom of the sea!”
Arahura, being the on-site control vessel, tried unsuccessfully to open a direct link with the Rescue Control Coordinator in Wellington, using the ship’s ‘Sea Phone’. The Sea Phone was a VHF service run by the ship’s owners through a repeater on Hawkins Hill overlooking Cook Strait. It connected five onboard telephones directly to the New Zealand Railways telephone network, and calls could be linked through to the Post Office telephone system. It performed very well in Cook Strait, but could be unreliable in the Marlborough Sounds area.
By the time the last survivor was rescued, there were several other vessels on the scene. These included a Navy patrol vessel, two cement carriers, a police launch and a number of fishing and pleasure boats.
Shore communications were being handled by Wellington Radio ZLW, Picton Harbour Radio and Cape Jackson Radio ZLJU.
Cape Jackson Radio was a privately owned station that supported local inshore fishing vessels, usually using VHF channels 16 and 63. The operators were members of the Baker family. This family had seen Mikhail Lermontov sail past their farmhouse a little earlier and had called the pilot on Channel 16 to tell him what a grand sight it was.
They were preparing to sit down for their evening meal when they heard the distant noise of the ship grounding. After hearing the pilot’s message to Picton Harbour Radio, they relayed to the Pilot information about the best place to beach the ship.
David Baker, along with two other family members, grabbed a portable VHF radio and went on their farm bikes to high ground overlooking Port Gore to relay information regarding the ship. Tony and Betty Baker remained at their radio console, keeping constant watch until well into the next day. Knowing nearly all the skippers and captains personally, they were kept very busy relaying traffic.
Tony and Betty’s expertise in radio operating and in directing the two dozen local fishing vessels engaged in rescue operations was absolutely essential for the success of this operation. Tony and Betty Baker were later awarded Queen’s Service Medals.
Picton Harbour Radio was being manned by Police Constable Bill Gibb (who had at one time been in the Merchant Navy) and Assistant Harbour Master Gary Neill, who had just arrived back on the pilot launch from the cruise ship.
At 1915, Navy patrol vessel HMNZS Taupo – ZMZN was proceeding out of Wellington harbour under the command of 26 year old Lt. Peter Batcheler. Aboard Taupo, radio operator APO David Trigg received a signal from Naval HQ directing them to the distress scene.
Due to the other vessels being in the shadow of Cape Jackson, HMNZS Taupo began working as a radio relay station. When it appeared that she might be needed as a tug, Taupo raced towards the stricken vessel at 19 knots and passed the radio relay duties to the cement carrier Golden Bay – GZAS.
Taupo kept in contact with ZLW and Arahura on 2182kHz. Taupo also called Mikhail Lermontov on 2182kHz and Channel 16, but could not contact the vessel.
All of the rescue vessels were equipped with VHF R/T and all the ships and some of the boats were equipped with MF R/T. Only Mikhail Lermontov, Arahura and Wellington Radio could communicate on the 405 –525kHz W/T band. Although HMNZS Taupo was fitted with wireless telegraphy, she could not transmit W/T on MF (500kHz).
At 1937, Tarihiko logged the weather as “Wind SE 25 knots, moderate to heavy driving rain, visibility 2 to 3 miles, with seas choppy in Port Gore”. Later that evening, visibility decreased, there was no moon and many of those at the helm of lifeboats and other small craft were having trouble navigating their boats.
Arahura’s R/O, David Hopgood, reported: “The evacuation results could easily have been reversed if the weather had continued to deteriorate”.
Three hundred and fifty-six of the Mikhail Lermontov’s passengers and crew were transferred to Tarihiko and another 381 were transferred to the larger Arahura. One Australian man who had fallen from a lifeboat was rescue by HMNZS Taupo. The rescuers had great difficulty determining the number of people who had been aboard the cruise liner and were also having trouble counting the survivors.
With the survivors embarked, David Hopgood returned to Arahura’s radio room. Suddenly the door burst open and in came Captain Vorobyov, accompanied by the Communist Party representative. “Get Vladivostok on the phone,” he ordered. Arahura was equipped with HF R/T and the request was quite feasible, but Hopgood decided that a phone patch through to the local Russian Embassy might be a better idea.
Afterwards, Captain Vorobyov went to the bridge and requested to use the VHF to communicate with the portable radios carried by his officers. He gave instructions for a crew role call to be carried out.
Just after midnight David Hopgood keyed a message to ZLW, which stated that 37 passengers from the cruise liner were unaccounted for. It was assumed that one lifeboat was missing. It was not until several hours later that it was discovered that the passenger list had not been updated since the vessel left Auckland and thus was quite inaccurate.
At 0157 Arahura left for Wellington and the cement carrier Milburn Carrier – ZMER took over as on-scene control vessel.
One of the busiest men that night was Captain John Reedman of Tarihiko. His was the first vessel on the scene and there were hundreds of radio messages to and from his vessel. The vessel arrived with her two motor lifeboats swung out, ready to be launched. It appeared to them that the liner was attempting (unsuccessfully) to ferry passengers ashore.
Captain Reedman later said: “To my absolute amazement I received a message from the pilot aboard Mikhail Lermontov saying that the Master did not wish to use our lifeboats.”
Fifty minutes later, he decided to ignore this and launched the port lifeboat. The liner’s lifeboats started arriving on their starboard side, so their other lifeboat was not launched.
Staff Captain Georgy Melnik was in charge of one of the lifeboats and before he took the lifeboat back to Mikhail Lermontov, he went to Tarihiko’s bridge to use their VHF radio (presumably on channel 17) to communicate with Captain Vorobyov. At one time it was suggested that Tarihiko also take on the role of radio relay between 2182kHz and Channel 16. However this was not possible as the vessel only had a crew of 18 and in the circumstances there was nobody available to undertake the task. All of Captain Reedman’s officers and many of his crew were either manning the vessel’s port lifeboat or engaged in embarking the rescued aboard.
He was doing an amazing job navigating his vessel in the confined waters, having to keep a very busy radio watch and also be host to 356 unexpected guests.
At 2120 ZLW called saying that they had two messages for Tarihiko on 2MHz. Tarihiko replied that they were too shorthanded to receive them.
Chief R/O Moskovkin was one of those aboard Tarihiko and he went to the bridge asking to speak to the Russian Ambassador on VHF. Captain Reedman relayed this, but ZLW declined the request, saying: “You would need Radphone to do that.”
The following night, after Tarihiko had resumed her voyage, the BBC was successful in getting a Radfone call through to the ship, presumably to interview her Master. Captain John Reedman’s efforts were recognised and he was later awarded the Queen’s Service Medal.
Tarihiko and Arahura arrived in Wellington before dawn the next morning. The passengers and crew were disembarked – Captain Vorobyov being escorted ashore by Communist Party officials, while Captain Jamison slipped ashore unnoticed. The crew were flown back to Russia and most of the passengers back to Australia.
- Captain Jamison surrendered his Pilot’s Licence, but got it back later. He returned to his job as Harbourmaster and later went back to sea.
- Captain Vorobyov was eventually permitted to return to sea and a few years ago was in command of a cargo vessel on the African coast.
- Following an enquiry by Soviet officials, the Chief Navigator, Sergey Stephanishchev, who was on the bridge at the time of the grounding, received a four-year suspended prison sentence.
A preliminary enquiry was held in Wellington, but possibly due to political pressure and secret negotiations, no public court of enquiry was convened.
The day after the disaster, R/O David Hopgood prepared a report for his Captain. The conclusion of his report reads:
The above statement covers serious areas, but without a full discussion, (they) could easily be swept under the carpet.
These were prophetic words from the Arahura’s Radio Officer – for many of the problems relating to the incident did get swept under the carpet and then the edges of the carpet were firmly nailed down!
If a similar incident happened in the future, then because of GMDSS, VHF repeaters, cell-phones, satellite links, etc, perhaps the rescue would be easier to co-ordinate. A colleague who is employed as a tutor in maritime radio communication procedures disagrees with this, saying that the skill level of those operating radio aboard ships is lower than it was in 1986.