From farmer to ship pianist

Bett Pittaway (left) was an office junior from 1941 to 1946, George Clephane (centre) was a wharf porter from 1943 to 1944 and Russ Grigg operated the ship-to-shore radio from 1953 to 1959. Photos by Christina McDonald.
Bett Pittaway (left) was an office junior from 1941 to 1946, George Clephane (centre) was a wharf porter from 1943 to 1944 and Russ Grigg operated the ship-to-shore radio from 1953 to 1959. Photos by Christina McDonald.
Before working as a pianist on TSS Earnslaw from 1994 to 2008, Bill Purvis owned and worked on a sheep farm in Western Southland.

After selling the farm he retired to Queenstown and when he saw that one of the steam vessel's pianists was leaving he was "cheeky enough to say I would like that job" Mr Purvis said.

"My wife and all my friends thought I was nuts, but I managed to put in 14 years."

Entertaining passengers was a far cry from farm work, he said, though very rewarding.

"On the farm all the sheep ran away from you and all you see is their dirty bums, but when you're playing here all the people come towards you and you see their happy faces - and that's much better."

To launch Earnslaw's centenary celebrations, a staff reunion was held aboard the steam ship on Sunday night, about 100 past staff attending.

TSS Earnslaw's only female skipper under current owners Real Journeys is Lisa McIlroy.
TSS Earnslaw's only female skipper under current owners Real Journeys is Lisa McIlroy.
The sole female skipper of Earnslaw at present - and the only woman to skipper the ship since company Real Journeys, formerly Fiordland Travel, first leased it in 1969 - is Lisa McIlroy.

Ms McIlroy is in her seventh season and said children were surprised to see a female skipper - as were woman from other cultures - and men shook her hand.

Having had "all sorts of skippering roles", she said she was thankful to the senior captains who had been willing to give her a go.

"It's been a privilege to have the opportunity to say you're the skipper of a 100-year-old steam vessel," she said.

"Steam is a very interesting era of time; it's living history."

The boat would "outlive us", she said, and she hoped there would be many more female skippers to come.

• See today's Otago Daily Times for preparations for the first re-enactment of Earnslaw's maiden voyage tomorrow.