Tilkum embarking with Discovery Island in the background and patches on her sails.

Tilkum embarking with Discovery Island in the background and patches on her sails.

The first person to sail solo around the world was Nova Scotian Joshua Slocum aboard Spray. His book, Sailing Alone Around the World, which tells of high sea adventure became an instant best seller. In the autumn of 1909, Captain Slocum left on a voyage to South America and was never heard from again.

Voyage of the Tilikum

Following Slocum’s success, several vessels set out to imitate or outdo the voyage of the Spray. One of the strangest of these was aboard an Nuu-chah-nulth ocean-going red cedar dugout canoe. The Nuu-chah-nulth are indigenous people of the Canada’s Pacific Northwest Coast. The canoe which was only 38 feet overall, including her carved figurehead and a beam of 5’6”. She was been purchased for $80 by Capt. John Voss from an old Nuu-chah-nulth woman who had been softened up, Voss claimed, with a “drap of ol’ Rye.”

Voss raised her topsides, added a cabin and cockpit, installed frames, floors, keelson, keel, water tanks, fixed and movable ballast, a rudder and tiller. Voss designed a rig consisting of three short stayed masts carrying a jib, gaff sails on the both the foremast and mainmast and a leg-o’-mutton sail on the mizzen. Her total sail area was 230 square feet. She was loaded with a half ton of ballast, between her floor timbers, and 400 lbs of sand in 4 bags to be used for trimming ballast. The boat was named Tilikum, an Chinook word meaning, “friend”.

Tilikum left Oak Bay harbour just east of Victoria on 20th May 1901. On board was Capt John (Jack) Klaus Voss and his companion Norman Luxton. Voss had been born in Germany or Denmark around 1861 and had gone to sea at 19, sailing the oceans in square-riggers and had a adventurous background including sealing, smuggling, gold prospecting in Colorado and British Columbia and had settled in Victoria where he co-owned a hotel.

Norman Luxton

Norman Kenny Luxton was born on 2nd November, 1876, in Winnipeg, Canada. He had an interest in native Indian artifacts having worked in an Indian agency in Winnipeg. He later moved to Vancouver where he worked for the Vancouver Sun. It was probably during this period when he met Voss in a bar where they talked of ships, sea adventures, and Slocum’s feat. Luxton was looking for an adventure that he could write about, and found in Voss an experienced seaman. Both men were headstrong. Voss was described by young Norman Luxton as a hardened seaman, egotistical, subject to black and violent moods when drinking, full of bravado, aggressive, and provocative. Both men were later to write about their adventures (see references below) and their accounts differed on many points, but the ideas of adventure and fame brought them together.

On the morning they left on their circumnavigation, Luxton learned that Voss had registered the Tilikum as the Pelican in order to confuse the U.S. Coast Guard revenue cutter that was supposed to be waiting to intercept Voss, who was wanted for alleged smuggling of drugs and illegal Chinese labour. Luxton was below sleeping off the effects of attending an all-night dance at the Palace Hotel the previous evening. He didn’t wake up until the Tilikum entered the violent rips at Race Rocks off Victoria. The wind and tides were against them so they pulled in at Sooke Harbour and beached Tilikum to check on several leaks that had developed through opened seams. Departing again, they attempted to double Cape Flattery but the weather again forced them to run back to shelter on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

On July 6, they embarked across the Pacific for Pitcairn Island. They had not gone more than 25 miles when they were surrounded by a large migration of grey whales and were in danger of being struck and crushed. They sailed first down the west coast of North America experiencing both fine weather and frequent gales. Voss taught Luxton how to sail and the techniques, many of which were ahead of their time, were later related in his book. Down through the Northeast trades they went, then into the doldrums and across the equator into the South Pacific. Luxton had hoped to visit Pitcairn Island where Fletcher Christian and his fellow HMS Bounty mutineers had settled. Unfortunately the winds did not carry them to that destination and they would voyage 4,000 miles before they would next see land.

Penrhyn Island and Tahiti

With Voss’s seamanship, the Tilikum survived many a storm and gale at sea. They made their first landfall at Penrhyn Island on 1st September. The two men had a violent argument here about thier landing. Voss had wanted to continue on to Samoa for he feared the Penrhyn natives would be hostile. None-the-less they landed and found the two-masted schooner Tamari Tahiti, a French trading vessel anchored there. She was commanded by Captain George Dexter, a half-caste Tahitian-American, and his partner, the legendary Captain Joe Winchester, “an English gentleman and sailor.” Their stay on Penrhyn was an eventful one, at least for Luxton, who related that he was trapped into a marriage by the mother of a local “princess,” from which he claimed he escaped only by quick thinking, and on their final departure. They were attended, Voss said, by two young “princesses,” who came aboard to wish them bon voyage.

The Cook Islands

Tilikum remained in the Cook Islands until September 25, then departed for Samoa by way of Danger Island. They paused briefly here. On the passage to Samoa trouble erupted between the two with Luxton claiming that Voss threatened to “throw him overboard.” Luxton armed himself with a .22 calibre Stevens target pistol and locked Voss in the cabin until they reached Apia. There they appeared to have patched up their differences and enjoyed a short stay and the hospitality of the locals.

While in Apia Luxton became involved with a Sadie Thompson with “legs like mutton and breasts like huge cabbages.” She wanted him to manage her store. Luxton visited the sights, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Vailima, and his tomb, wherein the famed author had inscribed his own epitaph, “. . . Home is the sailor, home from the sea,/And the hunter home from the hill.” The first week in October they got underway for Fiji. Before they left, however, Luxton took Voss to Mr. Swan’s store and read him an account of their differences including a statement of Voss’s threat to throw him overboard. The paper also stated that, if Luxton went missing between Samoa and Australia, Mr. Swan was to take such action as necessary to make Voss prove he had not killed Luxton. In his journal, Luxton claimed that Voss signed the statement as correct, although Voss makes no mention of this. On the third day out of Samoa, they sighted Niuafoo, where they were met by an island lass who swam out to beg for a plug of T and B chewing tobacco. Two days later they made one of the Fiji islands where Luxton went ashore to explore with gun and camera while Voss tended to the ship.


The next day they sailed for Suva. Luxton related that while ashore he had been met by a white official on horseback who told him a permit was needed from the Tongan government to land on the island, and that the natives were inclined to find “long pig” tempting as a dietary supplement. While in these waters, the two men were threatened by natives sailing catamarans. They were dissuaded from attacking when Voss fired an old Spanish cannon which they had aboard. It was during the passage from here to Suva that Luxton claimed they were shipwrecked on Duff Reef where Luxton was left for dead on the beach until he came back to life again with a body full of cuts and abrasions. They stayed here several days patching the Tilikum, then, on 17th October, they made Suva harbour where they were taken in tow by the port captain’s launch.

In Suva, Luxton, who said the shipwreck on had taken his last reserve of strength, proposed to Voss that he take on another seaman in his place while he went on to Australia by steamship. Luxton left the Tilikum and took passage to Sydney, leaving Voss to recruit Walter Begent whom he found in a Suva bar. Luxton said he tried to get Begent to throw away the Tilikum‘s liquor supply before they departed, and warned him about Voss, to no avail. During the passage, Voss claimed Begent was washed overboard in a storm taking with him the boat’s only compass. In his private correspondence, Luxton later said he felt sure that Voss had killed Begent in a drunken fight and threw him overboard. He also claimed that Voss did not deny this when Luxton accused him of it. While he was convalescing in Sydney, Luxton primed the newspapers to expect Voss and the Tilikum, no doubt wishing his own share the publicity. When Voss finally landed, days overdue with Begent missing, the papers had an even better story.


After his arrival in Sydney, Luxton reports Voss was in the hospital for weeks suffering from exposure and “sickness he contracted through the women on the islands”. The two erstwhile adventurers made numerous appearances together in Australia, then parted company in Melbourne. Luxton never saw Voss again, and returning to Canada, married, and founded a tourist haberdashery, trading post, and taxidermist shop in Banff, Alberta where a museum bears his family name . He died in 1962.

While in Australia, Tilikum was placed on display by Voss, along with the British Columbia Indian artifacts which were still aboard. After numerous adventures, Voss sailed to Hobart, Tasmania as Slocum had, where one of his greeters was Begent’s sister Jemima Clay, whom Voss reported, bore him no ill will.

New Zealand and South Africa

Voss then sailed to New Zealand where he was feted and gave lecture tours. In Dunedin, Voss had his name changed to McVoss and the ladies of the town sponsored Tilikum in a floral parade, decorating it with flowers from keel to tops of masts. He became friends with Horace Buckridge, who had just returned from Captain Scott’s South Pole expedition, who joined the Tilikum as a crewmember for a time. Voss departed New Zealand 17th August, 1902, with MacMillan, a well-educated man of refined manners, for the New Hebrides and the Great Barrier Reef. They sailed through Torres Strait and into the Indian Ocean, eventually on to Durban, South Africa encountering numerous adventures.

A new mate was signed on and the next stop on the voyage was St Helena, then Pernambuco in Brazil, which Voss had not visited since 1877 when he was on his first voyage to sea in a 300-ton sailing ship out of Hamburg, Germany, bound for Guayaquil, Ecuador. They remained two weeks in Pernambuco, and on 4th June 4, at 1500 hrs. were towed to sea and the long sail uphill to London by way of the Azores began.


On 2nd September, at 1600 hrs, thousands of people lined up to witness the strange little vessel rounding the jetty at Margate. From the distance came a voice: “Where are you from?” “Victoria, British Columbia.” came the reply. ‘How long have you been on this voyage?” “Three years, three months, and twelve days.”

In England, Captain Voss was feted for his adventures, and nominated for a Fellowship in the Royal Geographical Society, though for reasons unknown he was never elected nor officially became a member. Tilikum was exhibited at Earls Court, London in 1905 after which it was sold and passed through a number of hands before she was discovered lying derelict on the shores of the Thames in 1929. She was crated and returned to Victoria by freighter where restoration was carried out by members of Victoria’s Thermopylae Club. Since 8 June, 1965, Tilikum was on display at the Maritime Museum of British Columbia. Currently she welcomes cruise ship passengers on Victoria’s Ogden Point.


Voss returned to British Columbia, sold his hotel interests in 1907 and went to Japan where he worked in the sealing industry for 15 years till sealing was prohibited by law in 1911. Voss then embarked aboard The Sea Queen in 1912 for a world cruise though a typhoon forced her to limp back to port a month later under jury rig.

The amazing and intrepid Captain John Voss died of pneumonia in Tracy, California, on 27th February 1922.


Voyage of Tilikum