WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) _ A Soviet cruise liner carrying 739 people sent a distress message after slamming into rocks, but then radioed that it needed no help even as it was sinking in stormy seas, two New Zealand ship captains said.

Evacuated by lifeboats and a small armada of ships, all passengers and crewmembers of the 20,000-ton Mikhail Lermontov were accounted for today except a 34-year-old Soviet seaman missing and believed to have drowned between decks, search and rescue officials said.

The Leningrad-based ship was heading north in the scenic Malborough Sounds area of New Zealand's South Island on Sunday when it ran into rocks that punched a hole in the hull and knocked the engines out of commission, the Search and Rescue Service said.

The 580-foot liner, with a 12-degree list, drifted into harbor at Port Gore, where rescue officials said the captain tried to beach it. But the ship drifted back offshore, where it sank in 100 feet of water.

The crippled vessel sent a distress call at 6 p.m. For almost two hours, it then radioed that it was heading under its own power to Port Gore, at the northern tip of South Island. The first rescue ship, arriving nearly two hours after the mayday call, found passengers being lowered into lifeboats.

Capt. John Reedman of the liquified natural gas tanker Tarihiko said his ship picked up the distress call, but that the Mikhail Lermontov then signaled marine radio in Wellington that it did not require assistance.

Reedman said he gave orders to continue sailing to the scene anyway, and was the first ship to arrive.

The captain of another vessel that took part in the rescue flotilla, John Brew of the rail ferry Arahura, said he was also told by radio that the Mikhail Lermontov did not want help despite the mayday call.

Marine radio operators said other vessels responding to the distress signal were also told no help was needed.

New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange hailed the rescue as a ''remarkable achievement.'' He said a preliminary inquiry had been set up to establish the cause of the sinking and determine if the Mikhail Lermontov's captain, Vladislav Vorodber, had been negligent.

Lange said the inquiry needed to resolve ''concerns expressed about the need for an earlier warning (and) complications over (the) request for assistance.'' He said preliminary reports were''disquieting.''

He said the Soviet ship's captain and senior officers from the 330-member crew would remain in Wellington until the initial inquiry was complete.

The Soviet news agency Tass today hailed the crew for the safe evacuation of passengers, and also confirmed that a crew member was missing.

Without elaborating, Tass said a New Zealand pilot was aboard the ship, but Malborough Harbor Board officials said the Mikhail Lermontov's captain was in command when the liner hit the rocks.

On Sunday, Radio New Zealand quoted harbor board chairman Bruno Dalliessi as saying there was a disagreement between the Soviet captain and the pilot, identified as Capt. Don Jamieson, who the radio said was guiding the vessel to the open sea.

Dalliessi was further quoted as saying the Soviet captain had overruled the pilot on the seriousness of the situation after the ship crashed into the rocks, and had delayed calling for assistance.

Dalliessi today said he had been misquoted. ''We were getting information second-hand by monitoring radio messages and I had no knowledge of what happened on the ship,'' he told The Associated Press.

The Mikhail Lermontov's 409 passengers, many of them elderly Australians and New Zealanders, were taken from lifeboats aboard rescue craft and brought to Wellington, 35 miles across Cook Strait from Port Gore.

Efforts to rescue people from lifeboats were hampered by darkness, driving rain and 15 mph winds.

Ten people were hospitalized with minor injuries, Chief Police Inspector Owen Dowse said.

Two passengers, John and Phyllis Madden of Sydney, Australia, said people were calm during the evacuation but that many older passengers had trouble climbing down rope ladders to the lifeboats.

Stan Smith, 65, also of Sydney, said there had been only one lifeboat drill since the Mikhail Lermontov left Sydney on Feb. 7 for a cruise of the Pacific islands.

''We're all lucky people,'' he said. ''Another half hour, and it would have been too late.''