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Government report blames pilot for loss of Soviet ship

March 7, 1986

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) _ A government report issued Thursday said a Soviet cruise liner sank off the coast last month because a New Zealander assigned as pilot took it through a narrow channel that was too shallow.

It said the ship’s master, Capt. Vladislav Vorobyev, was not on the bridge when his ship hit a reef Feb. 16 in the Marlborough Sounds area on the far northern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, and absolved him of blame.

″The cause of the casualty was a decision by Capt. Don Jamison to navigate the Mikhail Lermontov through a narrow passage which was not deep enough for a vessel of that draft″ the preliminary inquiry report said.

All but one of the 739 passengers and crew were evacuated safely from the 20,000-ton vessel. A missing Soviet crew member is presumed to have drowned.

The Mikhail Lermontov was taking its passengers, mostly elderly Australians, on a 14-day cruise of Pacific islands. It sank in five hours and remains submerged in about 100 feet of water, on its side in thick mud.

The report rejected allegations of substandard safety equipment and shortcomings by the Soviet crew during the evacuation.

Transport Minister Richard Prebble, announcing the findings of the two-man inquiry headed by Capt. Steve Ponsford, said it had established the facts leading to the sinking beyond reasonable doubt and no formal judicial inquiry would be held.

No mention was made of passengers’ reports that they heard an argument between the Soviet captain and the pilot over the ship’s public address system, or to reports that the pilot, Jamison, had announced before the ship hit the reef that he was handing over the helm.

The report did not specifically mention a New Zealand naval officer’s allegations that the Mikhail Lermontov had leaky lifeboats and dangerously faulty safety equipment.

Prebble said New Zealand maritime authorities would review Jamison’s suitability to hold a coastal pilot’s licence.

The report quoted Capt. John Brew of the inter-island ferry Arahura, which evacuated many of the passengers, as saying the rescue operation was ″a credit to captain Vorobyev, his officers and crew, and a feat deserving the highest praise.″

Prebble said Soviet authorities would conduct a further investigation in Moscow, with particular reference to the conduct of the Soviet officers and crew.

Soviet officials have inspected the wreck, but have not announced whether a salvage attempt will be made.

New Zealand navy divers recovered two safes containing passengers’ valuables, which are expected to be opened in the next few days.

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