PERHAPS the most remembered date in western maritime history is April 15, 1912 when, on her maiden voyage, the huge, luxurious, twin-screw coal-fired liner Titanic struck an ice-berg in the North Atlantic and sank with the loss of more than fifteen hundred passengers and crew.
Less famous is another twin-screw coal-fired steamer, launched in February 1912 as Titanic was receiving her final touches.
One hundred years on, this small ship, weighing-in at 330 tonnes and now believed to be the sole survivor of her kind still in service, was given the name ‘Earnslaw’ after the highest peak overlooking Lake Wakatipu, the third largest expanse of inland water in New Zealand.
But let’s take a step back to1910, when New Zealand Railways, at that time responsible for shipping on the lake, decided the existing small paddle-steamer PS Mountaineer and the single-screw SS Ben Lomond, were too elderly and slow, and invited tenders for the design and construction of a new, twin-screw ship.
The contract, worth £20,850 was awarded to McGregor’s Yard in Dunedin, where, on July 4th 1911, the keel was laid, and by November 3rd the last plate fixed in place on the frame.
An exact count wasn’t made at the time, but the number of iron rivets used in the prefabrication has since been estimated at around 75,000.
Prefabrication? Why would one build a ship, only to take it apart again?
Well, let’s not forget that Earnslaw was destined to work on Lake Wakatipu, many miles from the sea so, after every plate and rib had been marked, she was dismantled and transported by goods train to Kingston on the southernmost point of the lake, where the keel was re-laid on November 28th.
By December 1st the frames and plates were being set, and on February 24th 1912, while Titanic was undergoing sea trials, Earnslaw was officially launched.
April saw her funnel and mast installed, and on August 3rd 1912 she set out on her first trial under steam.
Her second took place on August 20th, with the return leg from Queenstown Bay to Kingston taking one hour twenty-nine minutes – a recorded speed of 16 knots.
Earnslaw’s official maiden voyage, with crowds coming from as far as Invercargill, Dunedin, and Christchurch to welcome and admire the new ship, was on October 18th, with the Hon. J A Millar, Minister of Marine and a Certified Captain, at the helm.
Working almost without pause since 1912, Earnslaw has carried hundreds of thousands of passengers and countless tonnes of cargo in weather conditions ranging from ‘mill-ponds’ to raging hurricane-strength storms, dense fog, snow, and ice, delivering livestock and supplies to lake-side settlements, and more recently, serving the tourist trade.
This small, hardworking ship was designed and built to be coal-fired, and although in the 1960’s there was talk of stripping out her triple-expansion steam engines and converting her to diesel, public outcry put a stop to such sacrilege, and she continues to this day to be powered as designed, burning coal taken from Ohai, a tiny mining settlement two and a half hours by road from Queenstown.
In 1998 Earnslaw was awarded a top protection order listing her as Category One Heritage, meaning she cannot be demolished nor altered; but really, who would want to change such a jewel anyway?