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The Adventures of Captain Voss

A search for the Cocos Island treasure, a journey across three oceans in a dug-out Indian canoe and the capsizing of a yawl in a China Seas typhoon were among the adventures that

Captain Voss experienced on his remarkable voyages


The Tilikum was bought by Captain John Voss and made suitable for an ocean crossing

ORIGINALLY A RED INDIAN DUG-OUT, the Tilikum was bought by Voss and made suitable for an ocean crossing. Her length on the keel was 30 feet and her greatest beam was 5 ft. 6 in. Voss built a cockpit and a cabin 8 feet long, fitted lead on the keel and rigged the canoe with three masts, carrying a total sail area of 230 square feet. The Tilikum drew only 2 feet of water. This photograph shows her sailing into Margate, Kent, on September 14, 1904, after having sailed across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

CAPTAIN JOHN C. VOSS, a short, active, quick-witted sailor, occupies a niche in sea annals which is entirely his own. A sailor by profession, a Canadian by nationality, utterly fearless and with a great and abiding love of the sea, he made some remarkable voyages.

He bought a former dug-out canoe from a Red Indian, and in this craft, the Tilikum, Voss sailed, but not single-handed, from Victoria, British Columbia, to Australia, South Africa, South America and England, thus crossing three oceans, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic.

Voss was always studying the sea. He regarded every storm as an experience from which he could learn something. He had had more than twenty years’ experience in sailing vessels of various rigs before he took to tiny craft, and he found that the little vessels taught him much about seamanship. He was an ardent advocate of the sea-anchor for craft of less than 50 feet in length and insisted that such craft should have, in addition to other masts, a mizenmast on which a riding sail could be set.

Most men regard gales as terrible ordeals when they go to sea in small craft, but Voss regarded a gale in the same way that a research scientist considers a new specimen under his microscope. He came to decided conclusions upon the correct handling of vessels in storms. His book, The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss, contains an appendix in which he summarizes the whole of his experience. The volume is an important contribution to man’s knowledge of the sea.

Voss, in a long career at sea, brought vessels of many types undamaged through storms that wrecked other ships. He had a proper pride in his seamanship. There was no hesitation or doubt in the mind of Voss when he was at sea in any craft; he was a real master mariner. He mastered his ship and he mastered the sea.

There was a strong streak of romance in Voss’s character, as well as a rich vein of humour. The streak of romance accounts for the otherwise strange fact that Voss bought a 10-tons yacht and sailed from Victoria, British Columbia, to Cocos Island, to look for treasure. The story of the Cocos Island treasure does not, as a rule, lure seasoned mariners in these days, but at that time, in the ’nineties, people had more optimism.

Voss had more grounds for optimism than most Cocos treasure-hunters, because he was approached by a man named Haffner, who convinced Voss that he knew where the treasure was. When Voss had spent his hard-earned money on buying the yacht, he sailed to embark Haffner from a Mexican port, only to find that the man had died.

Nearly all these treasure-hunting yarns start with a story of a dying sailor handing over a chart or map of an island with a cross marking the spot where the treasure is buried. The chart is usually handed to somebody who has been kind to the sailor, and that somebody wants to borrow a vessel or ready money to buy one so that everybody concerned can go and get the gold. The story told to Voss was different from the usual yarn, and Haffner convinced a number of people besides Captain Voss.

Haffner handed Voss a letter written by a dying man, Jim Dempster, addressed to Voss. Dempster and other men had chartered a schooner and sailed to Cocos, where they had searched in vain. They had found Haffner on the island and had given him a passage back to Victoria. Haffner had told Dempster he knew where the treasure was. When Dempster had become ill Haffner had nursed him, and the dying man had told him to seek out Voss. Haffner told Voss he had not taken the other men of the schooner into his confidence because he did not trust them.

Voss found a 100-tons schooner and reported to Haffner, but the man raised objections, and refused to sail with him. Voss had spent part of his savings while looking for a vessel to please Haffner and was left in the lurch.

Treasure Hunt on Cocos

It is surprising that some months later, when a letter from Haffner reopened the scheme, Voss immediately jumped at it. Haffner’s new yarn was that an officer had told him that a British admiral visiting Cocos intended to hand the treasure to the British Government for restoration to Peru. On this Haffner had directed the sailors to dig at a wrong spot and then had said he had forgotten where the treasure was; the British had then left Cocos and had landed him at Acapulco, Mexico. All Voss had to do was to get to Acapulco with any kind of vessel and pick Haffner up. They would sail to Cocos and get as much treasure as the vessel would hold, and come back for the rest later.

Captain Voss sailed in the Tilikum, the 30-feet dug-out canoeVoss bought a 10-tons sloop, the Xora. She was 35 feet in overall length, 30 feet on the water-line, 12 feet in beam and drew 3 ft. 6 in. with her centre-board up. Voss stored her with food and 200 gallons of water, making her draught more than 4 feet, and sailed with two friends. A gale struck the little vessel and Voss hove-to, but the Xora’s behaviour, even with so little canvas, did not satisfy him.

FROM VICTORIA, B.C., TO ENGLAND Captain Voss sailed in the Tilikum, the 30-feet dug-out canoe. She was fifty years old when Captain Voss bought her in 1901, and she had belonged to a Red Indian. The Tilikum originally had a long figurehead, but unfortunately when she was taken to Pretoria, South Africa, for exhibition, her figurehead terrified a horse, which kicked it off.

He had never used a sea-anchor before and there was not one on board, but he made one there and then, and put it out. Then he rigged a riding sail aft. The reefed mainsail was lowered and the yacht lay comfortably head on to the gale for two days. This experience proved the value of a sea-anchor.

The Xora put in at San Blas, Mexico, where Voss received news that Haffner had died of fever in Acapulco. The three men talked the matter over and decided, now that they had come so far, to continue to Cocos Island, especially as Voss remembered the chart that Haffner had shown him. On this chart were marked the clues leading to the place where the treasure was said to be buried.

At the island they met a German and his wife. The German, who was the guardian and governor of the place, showed Voss a better anchorage for the yacht. While they were following his directions the vessel ran on a rock and was holed. They managed to repair her and then searched in vain for the treasure. When they had tired of this they sailed to Callao, Peru. Voss had to return to Victoria in a hurry. He therefore put a man on board the Xora and she sailed back while he hastened north.

This trip was made in 1898. A few years later, in 1901, Voss was approached in Victoria by a Canadian journalist named Luxton, who said that £1,000 could be made if Voss sailed a vessel smaller than Captain Slocum’s Spray across the Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. He proposed to go with Voss and they would share the money. Voss agreed and said that he would make the voyage in an Indian canoe to render the feat the more remarkable.

TWO TYPES OF SEA ANCHOR were used by Captain Voss

TWO TYPES OF SEA ANCHOR were used by Captain Voss. The Tilikum’s sea anchor consisted of a conical canvas-bag 4 feet long hanging from an iron ring with a diameter of 1 ft. 10 in. The opening at the lower end of the cone was about 2 in. wide. In the Sea Queen the cone was given a square opening (left) 2 ft. 2 in. wide. Cork floats kept the sea anchors suspended at a depth of about 15 feet.

He bought the fifty-years-old canoe Tilikum from an Indian on Vancouver Island. The craft had a long figurehead which was afterwards kicked off by a horse that was frightened by it, at Pretoria, South Africa, where Voss had taken the boat inland by train. The canoe had been hollowed out of one red cedar log and was a genuine dug-out.

Voss made a number of alterations to fit her for going to sea. Her length overall, including the figurehead, was 38 feet, her length on the keel was 30 feet and her greatest beam was 5 ft. 6 in. Voss built up the sides 7 in. and built a cabin 8 feet long and a cockpit; he put lead on the keel and rigged her with three masts. The total sail area was 230 square feet. He had inside ballast as

well as the lead on the keel, and carried about 100 gallons of water in two tanks, three months’ provisions, two rifles, a shot-gun, a revolver and navigating instruments. The canoe drew only 2 feet of water. All the running gear led to the cockpit, so that the man at the helm could set or take in sails. She was the strangest craft that ever crossed the ocean.

Everybody said that she and her crew would come to grief when she sailed from Victoria in May 1901. Luxton had never made a voyage before, but soon proved a good shipmate. The two adventurers spent some weeks with Indians on the coast of Vancouver Island, fishing and hunting. Then they began the long sail to the South Sea Islands. The wind and sea got up, and Voss prepared to ride the storm out to a sea anchor.

When the Tilikum was head to the storm Luxton saw a huge sea towering above the boat and he climbed up the foremast, thinking that the sea would break on board. His weight on the mast nearly capsized the boat, and Voss tugged at Luxton’s life-line and shouted to him to come down and put the sea-anchor over. Luxton came down the mast and put out the sea-anchor and the danger was over.

After the gale they sighted a sailing ship, went alongside and were given some fresh bread. Then they went on their lonely way. The first landfall was Penrhyn Island. The Tilikum visited Manahiki, Danger Island, Samoa and Fiji. There Luxton decided to go to Sydney by steamer and wait for the Tilikum. He engaged a Tasmanian, Louis Begent, to act as mate to Voss.

Then came tragedy. The young man neglected to fasten his life-line and was swept out of the cockpit and drowned by a sea that came aboard. The breaking sea also swept the compass overboard. Depressed by the tragedy, Voss had to sail the Tilikum single-handed and without a compass to Sydney. The boat was struck by a squall which heeled her over on her beam ends and the foremast broke. Relieved of the pressure of the sail, the canoe righted herself.

THE VOYAGES OF CAPTAIN VOSS in the Xora and the Tilikum

THE VOYAGES OF CAPTAIN VOSS in the Xora and the Tilikum are shown on these maps. With two companions Voss sailed from Victoria, B.C., in 1898, to pick up Haffner, who had the clues for the £7,000,000 Cocos Island treasure. At San Blas, Mexico, Voss learnt that Haffner had died. The Xora then sailed to Cocos and returned to the mainland at Callao, Peru, where Voss left her. Three years later he sailed from Victoria in the Tilikum to emulate Slocum’s voyage in the Spray (described in the chapter “Captain Slocum the Pioneer”) by sailing across three oceans in a smaller craft. Voss’s voyage was not single-handed, for he had various companions from time to time. One of his companions was washed overboard in the Pacific. To earn money Voss took the Tilikum by train for exhibition at Newcastle and Ballarat Australia, also at Johannesburg and Pretoria, South Africa. On September 14, 1904, the Tilikum sailed into Margate, Kent, and there her adventures came to an end.

THE VOYAGES OF CAPTAIN VOSS in the Xora and the Tilikum

Nearing Sydney she was nearly run down by a steamer; Voss pulled off a sock, soaked it in paraffin and set it alight. The improvised flare was seen and the steamer altered course. Then the canoe was menaced by waterspouts. By the time she reached Sydney she had been given up for lost.

Luxton was so upset by the news of the death of the young man that he decided to end the project. Voss, however, wanted to continue, and became the owner of the Tilikum. He had not the means to buy provisions or hire a mate, and his first consideration was to get money. This he did by turning showman and exhibiting the Tilikum. The harbour authorities charged him pilotage dues for entering the harbour, although he did not engage a pilot. He did not have enough cash to spare to pay the dues for going out, so he took a railway ticket to Newcastle, New South Wales, taking the Tilikum on the train as luggage. When he reached Newcastle to show the boat some people said no doubt he had done a large part of his voyage with the Tilikum as luggage, and he realized that it would be wiser to sail her to any place he could reach by water in the future.

When the Tilikum sailed from Newcastle for Melbourne with a new mate she encountered heavy weather and had to shelter in a bay before she reached Melbourne. There she was put on shore.

While she was being hoisted on to a dray the hook of the tackle snapped and caused the Tilikum to fall to the ground with a crash. Voss went to law and won his case against the firm who had contracted to move her. Then he repaired the canoe and took her by train to Ballarat, Victoria, where he exhibited her. On his return to sea, he sailed to Port Adelaide, South Australia. He and various mates sailed her to Tasmania and then to New Zealand.

With a new mate Voss sailed from New Zealand to the New Hebrides, and on to Thursday Island and north of Australia. He had intended to land in the Cocos-Keeling Islands, but the canoe was becalmed off the islands and drifted past. There was little food left and only eight gallons of water. The next island, Rodriguez, was about 2,000 miles away, but the rain enabled Voss to fill his water tanks.

The Tilikum at Canvey Island

IN A CREEK, at Canvey Island, Essex, the Tilikum lay for some years after her remarkable voyage of over three years from Victoria, British Columbia. For a time she was exhibited at Earl’s Court, London, and eventually was shipped to British Columbia, where she was preserved.

On the passage to South Africa Voss had a set-back when in sight of port. He was nearing Durban just before Christmas, but was blown back by a storm and did not arrive until some days after Christmas. By railway the Tilikum went inland to Johannesburg and Pretoria. She returned to the coast and sailed round the Cape of Good Hope. With another new mate Voss left Capetown for South America. The new mate suffered from sea-sickness, and Voss put in at St. Helena. This respite was welcome to the mate, but he was sick again as soon as they sailed for Pernambuco, Brazil.

On the last long voyage of the Tilikum from Pernambuco to Europe the mate was still sick until the Equator was crossed; then he began to recover. When his sea-sickness passed he developed an appetite that upset all Voss’s food calculations. Near the Azores the Tilikum was in a calm belt and sailed only twenty miles in a fortnight, during which the mate was eating heartily. They sighted a barque and spent two days on board her, but she had no provisions to spare, and Voss put in at the Azores. The last stage of the voyage was to Margate, Kent.

Voss stepped ashore at Margate Jetty after a voyage of three years, three months and twelve days from Victoria, British Columbia. The Tilikum was afterwards exhibited at Earl’s Court, London. Then for some years she lay in a creek at Canvey Island, Essex, and was afterwards shipped to the Pacific coast of North America, renovated and preserved in British Columbia.

Voss became the captain of sealing vessels in the north Pacific until sealing was prohibited for a period of years. He was in Yokohama in 1912, when he was approached by two yachtsmen, F. Stone and S. A. Vincent. Stone was building a small yawl, the Sea Queen, and invited Voss to join him and his friend on a voyage round the world. The yacht had a length of 25 ft. 8 in. overall, and 19 feet on the water-line. She had a beam of 8 ft. 3 in. and a draught of 3 ft. 6 in., with a sail area of 400 square feet.

An Enterprising Shark

She sailed from Yokohama in July 1912, and some days later was hove-to in Voss’s style to a sea-anchor, with a riding sail on the mizen. Then sail was made, but a breaking sea compelled her to heave-to again, and on this second occasion a shark bit holes in the canvas of the sea-anchor, and the yacht sprang a leak. She put back to a harbour, and the leak was repaired.

A second start was made. When the yawl had been at sea for about a week she was struck by a typhoon while she was hove-to at her sea-anchor under riding sail with oil bags out. The sea-anchor was lost and a temporary one was made.

The temporary sea-anchor was lost, and Voss was lying in the cockpit, the other two men being in the cabin, when the sea knocked the Sea Queen on to her beam ends and she began to turn over. Voss was thrown into the sea but managed to climb on to the upturned keel. A second sea struck the boat, and she slowly righted herself.

It took Voss several hours to get the water out of the cabin, and during this time Stone was twice washed overboard, but managed to get back each time. The three men took refuge in the cabin. Then the yawl got into the centre of the typhoon, where there was dead calm, and they looked out and saw that both masts had been blown out of her.

When the second stage of the typhoon began there was no gear to catch the wind, and the yawl weathered the seas. At last the typhoon passed. The three men fished (repaired) the broken mainmast, and eventually sailed back to Yokohama. The voyage was abandoned after this ordeal.

Voss was then aged fifty-four. He had packed many adventures into his life and was extraordinarily versatile. His popularity was world-wide. In New Zealand, for example, the Maoris were proud of the Tilikum, because their ancestors had come across the Pacific in canoes, and Voss proved that a long voyage in a canoe can be made successfully. Such a narrow, unstable craft required skill and experience, and Voss was a superb seaman.

The Sea Queen had a sail area of 400 square feet

THE SEA QUEEN was struck by a typhoon and capsized after having sailed from Japan, in July 1912. Voss and his two companions were still with the yawl when she righted. With an overall length of 25 ft. 8 in., a beam of 8 ft. 3 in. and a draught of 3 ft. 6 in., the Sea Queen had a sail area of 400 square feet.

You can read more on “Captain Slocum the Pioneer”,  “Great Voyages in Little Ships” and “Supreme Feats of Navigation” on this website.