TSS Earnslaw

The TSS Earnslaw is a 1912 Edwardian vintage twin screw steamer plying the waters of Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand. It is one of the oldest tourist attractions in Central Otago, and the only remaining commercial passenger-carrying coal-fired steamship in the southern hemisphere.[2]

New Zealand
Owner: Real Journeys
Builder: McGregor and Company, Dunedin
Cost: £20,850 ($41,700)[1]
Laid down: 4 July 1911
Launched: 24 February 1912
Maiden voyage: 18 October 1912
Refit: 1954 - Steam engines dismantled and reconditioned
Identification: IMO number: 8138190
Fate: In service
General characteristics
Displacement: 330 L/T
Length: 51.2 m (168 ft)
Beam: 7.3 m (24 ft)
Draught: 2.1 m (6.9 ft)
Propulsion: Twin screw steamer, twin coal fired triple expansion, jet condensing vertical marine engines producing 500 hp (370 kW) at 145 r.p.m.; cylinder diameters, 13 in (330 mm) (high pressure), 22 in (560 mm) (intermediate), 34 in (860 mm) (low pressure); cylinder stroke, 18 in (460 mm)
Speed: 13 knots
Complement: 11 crew, 389 passengers
Notes: coal capacity 14 tons, boiler type and pressure=Locomotive style, 180lb per square inch.


At the beginning of the twentieth century, New Zealand Railways awarded 20,850 pounds to John McGregor and Co shipbuilders of Dunedin to build a steamship for Lake Wakatipu at their Otago Foundry and Engineering Works.[3] The Earnslaw was designed by naval architect Hugh McRae and was based on a Siemens-Martin steel hull design and using Kauri for the decking. Propulsion was provided by twin coal-fired triple-expansion, jet-condensing, vertically inclined engines. The keel was laid on 4 July 1911.[3] The ship was named after Mount Earnslaw, a 2889-metre peak at the head of Lake Wakatipu. She was to be 51.2 metres long, the biggest boat on the lake, and the largest steamship built in New Zealand.[4] Transporting the Earnslaw was no easy task. When construction was finally completed, she was dismantled. All the quarter-inch steel hull plates were numbered for reconstruction much like a jig-saw puzzle. Then the parts were loaded on to a goods train and transported across the South Island from Dunedin to Kingston at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu.

Six months later, after being rebuilt, on 24 February 1912, the TSS Earnslaw was launched and fired up for her maiden voyage to Queenstown, with the Minister of Marine as captain.

She then became a valuable vessel for the New Zealand Railways (NZR) and was known as the "Lady of the Lake".

The Earnslaw worked with her sister ships, the paddle steamers Antrim and Mountaineer and the screw steamer Ben Lomond, transporting sheep, cattle and passengers to the surrounding high country stations.

In 1968, the Earnslaw was very nearly scrapped but she was fortunately rescued. She was leased by Fiordland Travel (now Real Journeys) in 1969, and later purchased by the same company in 1982. She was taken out of service for a huge makeover in 1984. Her 12 metre high funnel was painted bright red, with the hull a snow white, and her kauri timber decks glassed in.

During her long years on the lake, the most serious accidents to occur were two groundings on the shingle shores of the lake.

In March 1990, the Earnslaw carried Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Other royalty to travel on board have been the King and Queen of the Belgians and the Prince of Thailand.

The TSS Earnslaw made a brief cameo appearance in the movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) as an Amazon River boat.

A plaque commemorating the ship was erected by IPENZ and the Otago Heritage Trust in 2008, and is located near the former site of McGregor & Co.'s factory, close to Dunedin Railway Station.


The ship's captains include the following:

  • George Herbert (Captain 1935)
  • Tom Luckie (NZR Captain 19?? - 1952)[5]
  • Alexander Munro (NZR Captain 1952 - 1955)[5]
  • Patrick Bennetts (NZR Captain 1955 - 1964 - he was on the crew for 30 years)[6][7]
  • Patrick R. McSoriley (NZR Captain 1964 - 1968 - he first joined the crew in 1941)[7][8]
  • Sandy McLean (Captain 1968 - 1969)[5]
  • Maru Bradshaw (Captain 1969 - 1991)[5]

Current status

The Earnslaw celebrated her centenary in October 2012[9] and continues in routine operation carrying tourist passengers across Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown to Walter Peak High Country Farm, a tourism operation with farm tours, horse treks, heritage tours, barbecue lunches and evening dining at the historic Colonel's Homestead.

The ship works fourteen-hour days in the summer months and cruises for eleven months of the year, despite being over 100 years old. Visitors to the region can undertake a 1.5-hour cruise on board the TSS Earnslaw and view the workings of the steam engine and stokers.

Each year, the TSS Earnslaw undergoes an annual survey – typically from late May to early June – with every second year being taken out of the lake.

Each of the Earnslaw's screws is turned by a driveshaft driven by a triple-expansion steam engine. Passengers have access to a walkway in the engine room, where they can observe the operation of the engines during the cruise. The Earnslaw is the only working coal-fired steamship on the Lloyd's Register.


  1. "The Launch of the TSS Earnslaw". TSS Earnslaw. Real Journeys Ltd. Retrieved 27 September 2019.
  2. Beech, James (2009-07-06). "'Earnslaw' back after upgrade". Otago Daily Times. Allied Press. Retrieved 2010-05-23.
  3. Hughes, Miles (2012). 150 years of New Zealand Shipbuilding 1795-1945, 2nd edition. Miles Hughes Publications. pp. 598 and 599. ISBN 978-0-473-22207-9.
  4. As stated on a plaque commemorating the ship's building, close to Dunedin Railway Station and erected by IPENZ.
  5. Mackay, p. 40
  6. NZR List of Staff: Salaried Division: Miscellaneous, 1964, p. 34.
  7. McLeod, p. 74.
  8. NZR List of Staff: Salaried Division: Miscellaneous, 1964, p. 34 and 1967 p. 33.
  9. Real Journey: TSS Earnslaw Centenary celebrations officially launched


  • Malcolm Mackay, Lady of the Lake: The TSS Earnslaw Story, Malcolm Mackay, Queenstown, 1999.
  • Jenny McLeod, TSS Earnslaw : celebrating 100 years, 1912-2012, Te Anau, N.Z.: Real Journeys, 2012. ISBN 9780473211295 .
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