Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Captain Voss and Tilikum

Capt. J.C. Voss
Capt. J.C. Voss, one of history's greatest small-boat sailors, was also one of its least pleasant.

A lifelong mariner, Voss was a Canadian, living in Victoria, BC, in 1901. He was intrigued by Joshua Slocum's first-ever solo circumnavigation of the globe in a small boat between 1895 and 1889, and by the success of his book Sailing Alone Around the World in 1900. When Norman Luxton, a journalist, proposed teaming up for a similar trip in a smaller boat than Slocum's Spray, Voss agreed. As Luxton had no sailing experience, Voss would handle things nautical, while Luxton would document the voyage.

Voss purchased a large red cedar dugout canoe from a Nootka Indian on Vancouver Island, describing in The Venturesome Voyages Of Captain Voss how he got the seller drunk in order to obtain better terms and, in doing so, knowingly broke Canadian law. To prepare it for sea duty, he substantially modified the boat, raising the topsides, adding a cabin and cockpit, installing frames, floors, keelson, keel, water tanks, fixed and movable ballast, rudder and tiller, and a rig consisting of three small stayed masts, a jib, gaff sails on the foremast and mainmast and a leg-o'-mutton sail on the mizzen. Named Tilikum ("friend"), the boat was 38' LOA and 5'6" in beam.
Tilikum in New Zealand.
Leaving Victoria, the two made their first stop on Vancouver Island, where they looted an Indian burial cave for "curios" (including human bones) to sell later on their journey. This was no abandoned burial site: it was actively venerated by the local people, but Voss seems to have thought nothing of the ethics of his action, evidently assuming that Indian sensibilities were irrelevant and that being white gave him a prerogative in this area.

At Penrhyn Island, their first landfall in the Pacific, Voss assumed that the natives would be dangerous cannibals. Before entering the small harbor, he and Luxton fortified their cockpit with sandbags and prepared their guns (there were at least four aboard) to repel boarders. It turned out that the natives were perfectly friendly, having been satisfactorily "civilized" by a European missionary. As the voyage continued and further contacts were made with numerous non-European cultures, this inherent distrust seemed to diminish, though not Voss's disdain.
Tilikum under all plain sail. (Image from Wikipedia.)
Luxton proved to be a bad sailor, and he left Tilikum in Sydney, Australia. He was replaced by a succession of substitute mates, none of them lasting very long. Apparently, Voss was an unpleasant shipmate. On one passage, his mate disappeared -- swept overboard in a storm, according to Voss's account, although some have speculated that Voss murdered him.

Voss made many stops in Australia, displaying the boat and giving lectures to fund the ongoing voyage. Next, he went to New Zealand, where he again entered upon the lecture circuit. An incident there is worth quoting at length:

A splendid critique in the next morning's newspapers  (in Wellington) served as an instigation to us to speak on several succeeding occasions to full houses, and at the request of a white Maori chief from Palmerston North, a fair inland city, we put the boat on a train and, in company of the chief, journeyed overland to that place. In the country surrounding Palmerston live many Maori farmers who came to town by the hundred (sic) to give us a call. They were more than pleased to see a canoe which had crossed the ocean to their country, and the fact apparently strengthened their belief that in days of yore their ancestors had emigrated in large canoes to New Zealand from some distant region of the Pacific. One Maori, who spoke English fluently, told me that he had never credited the legend, as he thought it impossible to cross the ocean in such frail craft. "And now, as I see with my own eyes that you have covered thousands of miles in this Indian canoe and have arrived safely on our shores, I do not longer question that my forefathers can have accomplished the same!"
The maps show the rest of his voyage, which he completed in England in 1904, three years and three months after it began. While he did not return to the west coast of North America, he used the term "circumnavigation" to describe his voyage, on the rationale that he had crossed the three major oceans.

Voss and Tilikum weathered some horrendous storms, often relying on a sea anchor -- a device in which Voss was a firm believer and great champion. He was undoubtedly a seaman of great skill, and his choice of boat and the way in which he outfitted it demonstrate superb insight into small craft design for ocean voyaging.

Tilikum is now on display in the Maritime Museum of British Columbia.


  1. I picked up Venturesome Voyages a year or two ago and found it an interesting read. What stuck with me more than anything was Voss's descriptions of dealing with rough weather by putting out a sea anchor and heaving to. Voss seemed to be suggesting that his technique of dealing with storms was essential for small craft sailors to survive storms on the open ocean. Now that small sailboats routinely cross oceans, his advice is maybe less needed or improved boat design makes it less relevant, but he was venturing to sea in a craft that was probably considered undersized at the time.
    As for his various insensitivities to natives, I missed much of that. Not that it isn't there, but perhaps I just brushed over it because his attitude was common in writings of those times. Perhaps we have become more enlightened, at least in what thoughts we put in writing, but I don't know that we necessarily treat people of poor nations any better.
    But as you point out, Voss may have been a thoroughly unlikeable character in person and more than likely treated everyone poorly, natives and countrymen alike.
    I am curious whether any criticism of Voss has made it into print and survived.

    1. Criticism of Voss?
      Eleanor Georgina Luxton, Norman's daughter, edited a book ("Tilikum, Luxton's Pacific Crossing", Key Porter Books) purporting to be Luxton's account of the Pacific crossing.
      It's a vitriolic denunciation of Voss.
      I get the feeling that I wouldn't want either of them as friends.

  2. Hi Wolfgang,
    Voss's use of the sea anchor is cited in many modern works on storm tactics. I don't know enough about the subject to comment on how important it is for modern boats, but for Tilikum, being extremely narrow and shallow of draft, it appears to have been a good approach. It would have taken very little to roll that boat over and over on its beam ends.
    I admit that I'm applying a modern sensitivity to Voss's racial prejudices. His attitudes were fairly mainstream in his time. It's hard to read his narrative today, though, without being appalled.
    In the introduction to my copy of "Venturesome Voyages" (Gray's Publishing, 1976, Sidney, BC), F.E. Grubb of the Maritime Museum of BC tells how Luxton ended up hating Voss for having published the book counter to their agreement (although Luxton only completed a fraction of the voyage, and made no attempt to publish in the 10 years following it, before Voss's book came out). Grubb says, "Voss appears to have been a very strange man of moods and, except with regard to seamanship, impulses. Those who knew him well seem to have either loved him or abominated him."
    I seem to recall that, in his introduction to the International Marine (NY, 2000) edition of "40,000 Miles in a Canoe" (which is part of the "Venturesome Voyages"), Jonathan Raban discussed the theory that Voss murdered his crewman who disappeared during a leg of the voyage, and decided that it was impossible to reach a definite conclusion.

  3. I have many thousands of open ocean sailing in a small catamaran. I Believe that I have seen every sea condition at one time or another. A sea anchor and a drouge are ones best friends outside harbor! (besides a very good masthead light)

  4. John MacFarlane is releasing (September 2019) the first independent account of the voyage of the Tilikum and teh life of Captain John Voss. See http://www.harbourpublishing.com/title/TheUntoldStoryofCaptainJohnVossandtheTilikum

    1. The book has been released and is the first independent account of the voyages of Captain John Voss - particularly his trip to England from British Columbia in a dugout canoe. http://www.harbourpublishing.com/title/TheUntoldStoryofCaptainJohnVossandtheTilikum

  5. Much of the information contained in this article is false. My family were friends with Norman Luxton and I had access to the actual diary of the Tilikum. First of all Voss is NOT Canadian. He was born in Germany and lived in California for many years. I wrote a book on Norman Luxton based on the diary and letters pulled out of the walls of his home (quite the treasure trove).