Lermontov 99

Lermontov 99

by Pete Mesley

Our trip started from Auckland on a Thursday morning. Next stop Wellington, destination Picton. We were on a mission from God and it included six wreck-techos, three car loads FULL of gear, 10 ‘G’ sized O2 cylinders (thankfully they were organised to be on the boat already! – thanks Dave ) and one wreck – the Mikhail Lermontov. This was my first tour on the wreck and I was champing at the bit to get a look around, and that we did!!

The Mikhail Lermontov, a steel passenger liner weighing in at 10,742 tonnes was built in East Germany in 1972. She came to her demise in early February 1986 finally laying to rest in Port Gore. The story leading to her sinking is filled with controversy. It was thought that the huge vessel attempted to squeeze through the narrow passageway between Cape Jackson and the Cape Lighthouse. Now even if you were in a tinny you would be looking for bommies, so we don’t know what the Captain was thinking! Some say he had already struck rocks and headed through the passageway to get to safety as soon as possible. There is still very little known on exactly what happened and I guess we’ll never really know. Personally I would like to thank the skipper for giving us such a great wreck to dive! Only one life was lost during the sinking but four divers have lost their lives on the wreck so far.

We had a full crew with tour leader Dave ‘Maddog’ Maddox from New Plymouth Underwater showing us the way. Dive Rite was well represented with Damon and Gary from Nitrox Divers taking up most of the deck space! I came down with Tony Hall – our Eagle Boys inside man. The last member of the team was Marty from Dive & Ski Petone. We didn’t hold anything against Marty for being a Pom (if he was French that would have been a different story!) Everyone was twinned up, Nitroxed and raring to go!!

‘Franko’ from Sandpiper was our skipper and gracious host for the weekend. As luck would have it, I followed Dave’s lead and opted to take the stern bunk area for the weekend. This decision proved to be more valuable than Niagara’s gold. Legend would have it that our dear skipper does a bit of tree felling in his sleep (we could hear him cranking up his chain saw a few times from our bunks in the back!!) The adventure began on the saloon deck. By taking a detour down a flight of stairs around amidships we were on the Promenade Deck. This in itself is a penetration dive. There are plenty of windows along the deck letting in sufficient amounts of ambient light, but most of the glass is still intact reducing the amount of exits to two – the way we came in or to swim toward the stern where the enclosed promenade finished. As per usual there was an abundance of fine silt but viz inside the wreck wasn’t too bad at about four to six metres (zero if you have a ‘viz monster’ with you).

I buddied up with Dave, an experienced diver, who proved to be the perfect guide as he had previous experience on the wreck. Swimming along the prom deck, our first port of call was the Rainbow Cinema. All the chairs were still in their rows, slowly rotting away with time. The ceiling had already started caving in and the stage was collapsing, so utmost care had to be taken. I entered via one of the windows closer to the back and dropped down into the lower part of the room. Whenever entering an extremely silty wreck like this we always try and work the lower parts first and work our way upwards to keep the exit clear of the silt. One problem with open circuit diving is that the bubble trail dislodges particles above your head causing a ‘snow storm’ in the wreck. Of course I didn’t have such a problem as I was diving the weekend on my Dolphin 1 Semi-Closed Circuit Rebreather.

Upon arriving at the main stage I noticed that the main access door (to the right of the stage at the lowest part of the room) was impossible to go through with lots of debris inhibiting the way. Coming back up and over the chairs I tried to envisage what sort of movies or plays were held in this room, and could imagine the room packed with Russian holiday makers applauding the efforts of young actors!

We exited the cinema and were back on the prom deck. Swimming toward the stern, the next area of interest was the lobby leading to the library and ladies’ salon. It took Dave and I a few dives to prepare for this. Preparation is the key to safe wreck diving. We had studied the ship’s drawings intensely and tried to piece together areas that we had dived before, gaining more information as we went on. Was it possible to join two areas together that we had dived?

Possible solutions would be to lay line and attach strobes at the doorway to where we thought we could access another part of the ship. On the next dive we would try to locate the strobe light and see whether or not there was a through passage. Quite often we would have to clean up areas of old lines left by earlier wreck divers and other debris. When you do this all weekend you soon get to know that part of the wreck quite well.

Dave and I had to move three bulkhead doors away from the lobby entrance on a previous dive. Entry onto the lobby was very tight and we were barely able to squeeze through the doorway. Light was quite low, viz wasn’t that good, and it was very quiet. The wreck is lying on its starboard side at almost 45 degrees so everything is upside-inside-sideways round (you get the gist!) Keeping orientation was very important. We descended down past the library entrance and the ladies salon. The elevator door was open but the elevator was on the next floor down. I could see all the cables and interior of the elevator shaft. Directly opposite was a staircase that led to both the upper and lower decks. Wall paper half stripped off the walls hung there motionless. I noticed an oil painting frame still on one of the walls but the painting was taken or had rotted away.

Further down again we came to a long passageway where the kids’ playroom was situated. This area was far too dangerous to venture into. Venturing down the narrow passageways would surely reduce the visibility to zero and it would be impossible to turn around (you would have to go into a room, turn yourself around, then come back). On the bottom of the lobby, as per usual, was a huge pile of debris, chairs, and silt.

Ascending back up to the library entrance Dave spotted a fire hydrant and a whole shelf of Russian books. We squeezed through the Library door and made our way gently over all the desks and chairs. There were loads of books but to touch them would convert them into billowing clouds of pulp! We exited through the library window and were once again back on the prom deck!

One of the biggest considerations with advanced wreck penetration is having a balance between confidence, experience and knowing when to call it a day when it’s getting too risky. When entering a highly hazardous environment everything has to be planned. You must have the right gear and you need to dive with someone who you trust! So many people go into overhead environments with a single air source, leaving no redundancy, and wonder why they get into trouble! Any idiot can swim into a wreck. It’s returning in one piece that takes the skill, training and experience!

Available from Dive New Zealand mail order:

Mikhail Lermontov Video – DiveNew Zealand has obtained a special reissue of this video of our country’s biggest wreck dive. Since this luxury 176 metre Russian cruise liner sank in 1986, it has become a diving paradise. But why did Captain Jamieson drive the Mikhail Lermontov onto the rocks? Why did they say the lifesaving equipment was safe? Underwater cameras follow salvage divers into the bowels of the Lermontov as oil, ship’s safes and cabin jewellery are removed by divers using underwater decompression chambers and robots. Filmed as it happened among the beauty of the Marlborough Sounds.

Death of a Cruise Ship – There are still many unanswered questions about the Mikhail Lermontov’s sinking. The book presents a cross section of the passengers, entertainers and the crew, following through their reactions, concerns and sometimes desperate attempts to get free of the sinking ship. Soft cover, 200 pages, black and white photos. By Tom O’Connor

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