Full steam ahead for vintage ship

By Sue White 17 June 2011
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As one of the only working steam ships in the Southern Hemisphere, the TSS Earnslaw continues to win hearts.

1912 MAY GO DOWN in history as a bad year for steamships, but perhaps that’s because few people look much further than the doomed Titanic. While that particular mega ship’s tragedy has captured the public’s imagination for decades, there’s a steamship nearby winning hearts because, well, she just keeps on going.

On Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu, on New Zealand’s South Island, the coal-fired TSS Earnslaw has been hard at work for almost a century. Built in Dunedin in 1911, she was dismantled and brought to Queenstown by rail before being launched in February 1912 – just two months before that ‘other’ steamship’s ill fated voyage.

Like the most steamers travelling the lake at the time, TSS Earnslaw was destined for a practical role. Thanks to her ability to carry up to 1500 sheep and 30 cattle on her wooden decks, the ship played a vital function in linking the remote farming communities around Lake Wakatipu with the outside world.

As the only survivor of the original Lake Wakatipu fleet, TSS Earnslaw is believed to be the last remaining coal-fired passenger vessel in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a status than has kept her in fulltime work today; she clocks around 38,000 kilometres a year, mainly between the Queenstown jetty and Walter Peak farm, shuttling steam buffs and tourists across New Zealand’s third largest lake.


North Canterbury resident Kelvin Linto is one of the many steam enthusiasts who appreciate the 168-  foot vessel for more than her ability to provide a scenic cruise.

“It’s amazing what you can do with steam,” he says, hovering over the viewing platform, where passengers can watch sweaty, overall-clad men shoveling coal into a furnace below the main deck.

“Look at the open pistons, the crank shaft – it’s a dying art. People don’t appreciate the beauty of something like this,” Kevin says. He estimates he’s travelled on the Earnslaw a dozen or so times on his visits to Queenstown, simply for the joy of seeing a steam ship at work. “It’s easy to put diesel in and not shovel coal,” he says, before pointing out that to his expert eye, the Earnslaw is kept in mint condition.

He’s right. Every two years, the owners, Real Journeys, give the “Lady of the lake” a month or so off, to administer the thorough overhaul that’s kept the vessel operating successfully for 99 years and counting. “They’ll be taking all those safety valves apart,” Linto says, pointing down to the sweaty bowels of the engine.

“If one of those popped a gasket we’ve probably explode over Queenstown. Steam has such immense capability,” he says.

The TSS Earnslaw

For the love of it

Even those not obsessed by engineering or steam appreciate the slice of history that comes with their ride. Steve Donaghey has been enticed out of retirement to captain TSS Earnslaw a couple of days a week.
“It’s more than a job; I like the old girl. She’s quite a classic. A lot of passengers appreciate that you don’t see them around these days,” he says.

Donaghey says he’s no steam buff, but as a boatie from way back he enjoys the elegance of steam ships.”There’s no noise, or clanging and banging,” he says, pausing from steering to deal with the steady steam of tourists visiting the wheelhouse for a photo.

He believes modern vessels simply don’t have the Earnslaw’s pulling power. “People wouldn’t walk past [modern ships] and say, ‘Wow, I want to try that’,” he says. In 2012, the Earnslaw turns 100, and its owners are planning a fitting celebration.

“We’re hoping people will remember anything from their first cruise to their favourite TSS Earnslaw anecdote, and we’d love to see copies of photos or memorabilia,” says Tony McQuilkin from Real Journeys. His team is planning a week-long centenary celebration in October 2012, including a first sailing re-enactment the company is confident will sell out.

Back on board, Linto learns of the hundred year celebrations with interest. He doesn’t look like the type to dress up in period costume, but the re-enactment of the first voyage grabs his attention.

“I’ll be back,” he says, going back to staring down at the engine room, entranced.

The TSS Earnslaw departs multiple times a day from the Queenstown wharf.