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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.
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.