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TSS Earnslaw – 1912-Built Edwardian Vintage Twin Screw Steamer

Following a cruise from Sydney to Auckland in February this year, my wife and I made a road trip through the North and South Islands of New Zealand including the picturesque city of Queenstown located on picturesque Lake Wakatipu. Since 1912, the freshwater lake has been the home of the magnificently preserved and operational TSS Earnslaw, reportedly the only commercial coal-fired passenger steamship in the southern hemisphere.

  • Built by John McGregor & Company, Dunedin NZ
  • Owned and operated by: Real Journeys
  • LOA 51.2m
  • Beam 7.3m
  • Propulsion Twin screw, twin coal-fired triple expansion, jet condensing vertical marine engines producing 500 hp (370 kW) at 145 rpm
  • Coal capacity 14 tons
  • Speed 13 knots
  • Capacity 389 passengers and 11 crew

In 1910, the contract to build Earnslaw was awarded by New Zealand Railways to John McGregor & Company whose shipyard was located in the Port of Dunedin on the east coast of the South Island. Following construction, she was meticulously dismantled, each piece being numbered, and railed to Kingston on the south end of Lake Wakatipu for reconstruction. She made her maiden voyage in early 1912 having been named after Mount Earnslaw, an almost 3,000 metre peak at the head of the lake. In tandem with her sister ships the paddle steamers Antrim and Mountaineer and the conventional steamer Ben Lomond she was employed in moving passengers, cattle and sheep to the developing network of country stations around the lake.

Having come close to being scrapped in 1968, she was saved by Fiordland Travel, since renamed Real Journeys. and eventually in 1984 given a complete makeover. In 1990, she hosted the Queen and Prince Philip during the royal tour of that year during which the Queen officially closed the Commonwealth Games in Auckland and attended celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi. Signed in February 1840, by representatives of the British Crown and Maori chiefs, the Treaty was signed at a time when British colonists and the New Zealand Company (acting on behalf of settlers) were anxious for the British Crown to establish a colony in New Zealand. It was drafted with the intention of establishing a British Governor, recognising Māori ownership of their lands, and giving Māori the rights of British subjects.

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Having celebrated the centenary of her maiden voyage in October 2012, Earnslaw maintains a busy schedule in the summer months of 6 round trips of the lake each day. She provides a water link to the popular tourist attraction of Walter Peak High Country Farm which offers lunch and afternoon teas at the magnificent homestead along with traditional sheep shearing and sheep dog demonstrations.

Otherwise, visitors can make a 1.5-hour round trip cruise as we did. A highlight is to watch the stoking of the boilers from a platform in the uppers of the engine room or be serenaded by the piano player while sampling a rich selection of thirst-quenching beverages and snacks.

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Unsurprisingly, Earnslaw undergoes an annual survey – typically from late May to early June and every second year she is docked for underwater maintenance. She is classed by Lloyds Register.

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