In August 1986, the Soviet cruise liner Admiral Nakhimov collided with a freighter while leaving port and was sunk, killing over 400 people. It was the worst shipping disaster in Soviet history. And strangely enough, this was not the first time the ship had been sunk.
Before the age of jet air travel, the only method of crossing the Atlantic between the United States and Europe was by passenger liner. Although the trans-Atlantic traffic was dominated by British ships like the Olympic and the Mauretania, the Germans also had a significant share of the market. One of the German passenger liners that served the Atlantic routes was the Berlin, constructed in 1925 in the Vegesack Shipyard by the North German Lloyd shipping line. The third German liner to bear the name, the Berlin measured 572 feet long, and carried about 1000 passengers per trip between New York and Bremen. From 1925 to 1938, she criss-crossed the North Atlantic, her routine service only interrupted once, in November 1928, when the liner Vestris was sunk in a storm off the coast of Virginia, and the nearby Berlin was dispatched to the scene to help pick up survivors.
In 1938, the Hitler regime introduced a program that they called “Strength Through Joy”, a morale-building exercise which took groups of ordinary German workers on luxury cruises. As part of this program, the German government confiscated the Berlin, using her for a number of cruises before, on the eve of World War II, converting her to a hospital ship. From 1940 to 1944, “Hospital Ship A” ferried wounded troops from the battlefield to medical facilities in Germany and Norway.
By the end of 1944, the Soviet Army was pushing the Nazis into a full retreat, and the Germans began a massive effort to transport wounded German soldiers as well as civilian refugees out of Eastern Europe. Several former passenger liners were pressed into this service, and one of them was the Berlin. On January 31, 1945, while forming up as part of a convoy, the Berlin hit a floating Russian mine and was severely damaged. Taken in tow by another ship, she was on her way to the port of Kiel for repairs when, around midnight, she hit another mine. This time the damage was too extensive, and the Berlin began sinking. But because she was in shallow water at the time, she settled on the bottom with about half her height still above water. Nearly all of the crew and passengers got off safely. For the next five years she stayed there as an abandoned derelict, half-submerged.
After the war ended, the area where the Berlin lay rusting was now a part of Poland, in the Soviet orbit. The USSR had suffered enormous economic devastation from the war, and the Russians were keen to salvage anything that was useful, particularly if it had formerly belonged to Germany. The wreck of the Berlin caught their attention. Seizing her as “war reparations”, the Soviets launched an amazing effort to patch up all the damage in the ship’s hull, pump out all the water to re-float her, then replace most of the interior (increasing her displacement by about 2000 tons). In 1949, the resurrected Berlin now joined the Russian fleet as an un-named transport vessel for the Soviet Foreign Ministry.
In 1957, the ship was once again re-fitted, this time as a passenger cruise ship. Now named the Admiral Nakhimov, after a hero of the Crimean War, she was assigned to the Black Sea Shipping Company (BLASCO) and was based in the resort city of Odessa, where she began regular cruises to ports in Turkey. During the Missile Crisis in October 1962, the Nakhimov was temporarily diverted for use as a troop transport, delivering a number of Soviet soldiers and military technicians to Cuba. She then returned to civilian service, adding occasional cruises to Havana on her schedule.
Although she was still being promoted as “the pride of the Black Sea”, by 1986 the Nakhimov was showing her age and had been eclipsed by newer and more modern ships. She was already in the process of being scheduled for decommissioning and scrapping.
On the night of August 31, 1986, the Nakhimov was partway through her routine six-day cruise around the Black Sea to Turkey, and had just left the port at Novorossysk en route to the resort city of Sochi. On board were 888 passengers and 346 crew. At 10:30pm, just as the ship was approaching the mouth of the harbor, Captain Vadim Markov noticed a blip on his radar. It was the Soviet freighter Pyotr Vasev, returning from Canada with a load of grain. The night was so clear that Markov could see the Vasev’s lights on the horizon. According to the maritime rules of traffic, the incoming Pyotr Vasev had the right of way, but Captain Markov radioed the approaching freighter and asked it to give way to the Nakhimov, so his passengers would not be delayed. The freighter’s captain, Victor Tkachenko, replied that it would be alright–they had plenty of room to pass. Thus satisfied, Captain Markov turned over command of the Nakhimov to his first officer, Alexander Chudnovsky, and went to bed.
But something was going wrong. Shortly before 11pm, Chudnovsky noticed that the Pyotr Vasev had not altered its course or speed, and was getting close to the Nakhimov. Contacting the Vasev by radio, he was again assured that there would be “no problem”. But still there was no change in the freighter’s course or speed. As the incoming ship loomed closer and closer, her lights ablaze, Chudnovsky now altered his own course by ten degrees, then a few minutes later turned another ten degrees. But the Vasev continued to approach, and at ten minutes after 11 it was apparent that there would be a collision. Chudnovsky ordered a sharp turn to try and get out of the way, and on board the Pyotr Vasev, Captain Tkachenko now ordered his engines put to full astern to try to stop, but it was already too late. Each ship weighed over 17000 tons, and their momentum inexorably brought them together. Up on deck, some of the Nakhimov’s passengers were watching helplessly as the freighter bore down on them. Two minutes later came the impact.
The bow of the freighter punctured the hull of the passenger ship squarely in the boiler room, penetrating at least 20 feet. The Nakhimov’s forward momentum dragged the Vasev’s bow back along her hull, ripping open an immense hole some 30 by 30 feet and exposing several decks to the ocean. The waters of the Black Sea began pouring in at a rate of tons per second. The liner took an immediate list to starboard, and as the Nakhimov leaned over, the portholes were submerged. Because the ship’s antiquated ventilation system did not work very well, nearly every porthole on the ship was open, and now this added to the water flooding into the hull.
Of the several hundred passengers who had already retired to their cabins for the night, virtually none survived. The impact had torn up the ship’s generators and shut off the electricity, including the lights, and as the Nakhimov continued to lean over sideways, it was impossible for passengers to find their way out. The huge tear in the hull and the open portholes allowed so much water to enter that after just four minutes the ship was laying on its side, and only four minutes later the Admiral Nakhimov had disappeared under 150 feet of water. There had not been time to launch even a single lifeboat.
Fortunately, however, most of the Nakhimov’s passengers had been on the upper deck, either at a dance party or watching a movie in one of the ship’s theaters. The Pyotr Vasev, which had backed away a short distance after the collision, began picking survivors out of the water almost immediately, and other rescue ships arrived within ten minutes. Of the 1,234 crew and passengers on the Nakhimov, 423 were drowned.
The secretive Soviet Union did not like reporting on things that had gone wrong, and news of the disaster was not officially released until two days later. A government inquiry was launched under the Maritime Ministry, which concluded that both Captain Markov of the Admiral Nakhimov and Captain Tkachenko of the Pyotr Vasev had been criminally negligent in their duty. Both men were sentenced to 15 years in prison, but both were released in 1992, after the collapse of the USSR. Neither has spoken about the incident since, and there is still no clear understanding of how the two ships collided despite being in visual and radio contact with each other.