“yet a mighty seaman he (Voss) was, born hundreds of years after his time, delayed for some unaccountable reason in the Unknown. A Viking who belonged to the ages before Christ, yet born in the nineteenth century. A man out of place; the butt of those who thought they knew the sea, and a great wonder to all who read his adventures; later to command the admiration of poofers and know–alls”.
The dugout canoe Tillikum re-rigged for her circumnavigation. Note the patches on the aft sail.
Capt. J.C. Voss, c.1858-1922 one of history’s greatest small-boat sailors, was born near Elmshorn Schleseig-Holstein, Germany. Prior to arriving in British Columbia, he worked his way through the ranks of the merchant service under sail. Subsequent to serving as Chief Mate on the ship Prussia, in 1892 he held command of vessels as Master, which entitled him the honorific of Captain.
Voss operated a small hotel and butcher shop in Chemainus BC where it is reported he was engaged in the ruthless practice of shanghaiing… while tending bar Voss would slip “knock-out drops” into the drinks of unsuspecting seamen who would subsequently find themselves awakening in the forecastle of a ship well on its way to the orient as new and unwilling crew members. For this trade in human cargo Voss was well paid by ship’s masters unable or unwilling to recruit crew members legally. Later, Voss moved to Victoria where he owned the Queen’s Hotel in Victoria and later, the Hotel Victoria.
Tillikum is part of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia’s collection of significant small craft.
He was intrigued by Joshua Slocum’s historic 1895 -1889 solo circumnavigation, and by the success of his book Sailing Alone Around the World published in 1900. When Norman Luxton, a journalist, proposed teaming up for a similar trip in a smaller boat than Slocum’s Spray over beer in Victoria, Voss agreed. As Luxton had no sailing experience he would document the voyage while Voss would handle all things nautical.
Voss purchased a large red cedar dugout canoe from a Nootka (Nuu Chah Nulth) Indian. In his book The Venturesome Voyages Of Captain Voss he describes how he got the seller drunk in order to obtain better terms. In modifying the 38′ LOA by 5’6″ beamed vessel for the adventure, Voss raised her topsides, added a cabin and cockpit, installed frames, floors, keelson, keel, water tanks, fixed and movable ballast, rudder and tiller, and designed a rig consisting of three short stayed masts, a jib, gaff sails on the foremast and mainmast and a leg-o’-mutton sail on the mizzen. Named Tilikum (friend), Voss and Luxton set out aboard Tilkum from Oak Bay in 1901.
Luxton proved a bad sailor, and left Tilikum in Sydney, Australia to be 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, though some speculated that Voss had murdered him.
Voss made a number of stops while in Australia, displaying the boat and giving lectures to fund the ongoing voyage before sailing 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 immigrated 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!”
Over the course of the voyage Voss and Tilikum weathered horrendous storms, often relying on a sea anchor of his own design. He developed a method of towing an old Indian blanket on the end of rope while trailing a traditional canvas sea anchor from the bow while hove-to. The technique proved successful, and Voss and his crew member could light a riding light at night, close up the cabin and go to bed “like two farmers” until the storm blew itself out.
Voss arrived in England in 1904, having completing his voyage three years and three months after it began. While he did not return to the west coast of North America on the voyage, he used the term “circumnavigation” to describe his adventure on the rationale that he had crossed the three major oceans. He was undoubtedly a seaman of great skill, and his choice of boat and the way in which he prepared her demonstrate his superb insight into small craft design for ocean voyaging.
Voss returned to Victoria in 1906 and acquired the St. Francis Hotel (Oriental Hotel) on lower Yates Street, which was sold in 1907. Also in 1906 he was appointed “captain” of the lifeboat Quadra stationed at Victoria BC. Propelled by oars the lifeboat was to be towed to scenes of disaster requiring assistance. He resigned the position in October of the same year in a dispute over his rate of pay.
He took the schooner Jessy from Victoria to the Columbia River in 1907 and soon after became a partner in the 50′ green-hulled Ella G. in an unsuccessful sealing venture with the Japanese. Voss moved to Japan where he operated for many years, remaining out of contact with Canadian friends and associates. Among the vessels of which he was Master was the Japanese sealing schooner Chichishima Maru based in Yokohama. This vessel operated up the coast of Siberia until the 1911 Pelagic Sealing Treaty ended that enterprise. A fund had been established to compensate the owners of sealing vessels and Voss used his share of the money to purchase the Sea Queen in 1912 with two Yokohama yachtsmen, F. Stone and S.A. Vincent as partners. Voss attempted a cruise around the world from Yokohama Japan in the Sea Queen (25.6′ x 8.25′ x 3.5′) with a sail area of 400 square feet. He was thwarted by a typhoon that finished the voyage.
Contrary to the many authors and writers who reported otherwise, it was while he was sailing out of Japan that he was elected to the Royal Geographical Society as a Fellow in 1914.
Voss gave up the sea and moved to Tracey California in 1918, again losing touch with many of his colleagues, and spawning the popular story that he was lost at sea during a voyage in Sea Queen. From 1920 onward, he drove a Ford motorcar as a jitney or taxi in Tracey where he eventually died of pneumonia in February, 1922.