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Stoker Charles Easter mans the engine room of Queenstown’s iconic steamship, the TSS Earnslaw. Photo/Tim Cuff

Life as a stoker on Queenstown’s iconic steamship

A job within the confines of a steamship’s noisy engine room might seem a strange career choice for someone with a penchant for the great outdoors. But for former rock-climbing instructor Charles Easter, it’s proved ideal – and literally comes with all the bells and whistles.

Five years after joining Queenstown’s iconic TSS Earnslaw as a stoker, he still experiences each journey across Lake Wakatipu on the 107-year-old “Lady of the Lake” as something unique. “I always notice something new,” says Easter, originally from Virginia, USA. “It’s not like a car engine; all the concepts are laid bare – you see what everything does, the why, and how. It’s never felt like a small space, especially because it opens up to the decks above.”

As well as shovelling coal to fire the boilers that send steam to two triple-expansion engines, Easter’s job includes lubricating the steel pistons, and adjusting valves to control steam and speed. “The brass needs polishing regularly. There’s always steam floating in the air and ash goes everywhere.” Communication with the skipper is via the original engine order telegraph, a system of bells and dials. Respite from the soaring temperatures comes from two industrial fans fed from the vessel’s large red intakes on deck. “It’s certainly got a lot of idiosyncrasies, like knowing how to avoid water hammer from condensation inside the pipes [which can crack the valves], or the fact the left side of the boilers build up more ash than the right.”

Daily jobs include a 7am scrape of up to a tonne of hot ash accumulated under the locomotive-type boilers from the previous day’s sailings. It’s physically demanding work – and all done under the public’s scrutiny from viewing areas on the steamship. “There are times when my rock-climbing callouses are fighting my work callouses,” Easter says. “But if I’m having a rough day, I just look up and see the view of the lake and mountains. It’s incredible.”

Read more: Taking the top-of-the-lake road to Glenorchy | Inside Tākaka's community-run power station | The photographer who helps us see NZ's remotest views

This article was first published in the January 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.

The TSS Earnslaw. Photo/Tim Cuff