On July 6, 1901, one of the strangest sailing vessels ever to attempt a cruise ’round the world slipped away from the coast of Vancouver Island and out into the Pacific. Christened Tilikum (the Nootka Indian word for “friend”), the improbable little vessel carried an experienced master of merchant sailing ships, Capt. John Claus Voss, and an imaginative Vancouver journalist-cum-promoter, Norman Kenny Luxton.
Voss and Luxton met at Victoria, British Columbia, and immediately became friends. As an experienced newspaperman, Luxton had been greatly impressed with the publicity generated by Nova Scotia-born Joshua Slocum’s recent voyage. Luxton suggested that he and Voss pool their respective professional talents to undertake a Slocum-like circumnavigation that would assure them a place in nautical history — and some serious money for their trouble. The cash would come from lectures and exhibitions at ports of call along the way, and by publishing a book based on their adventures after the voyage. Voss readily agreed and set about searching for a suitable sailing craft for the venture.
Although their circumnavigation idea was hardly unique, Voss’ final selection of a vessel certainly was. He chose a 38-foot Indian canoe — a dugout created by native artisans almost a hundred years before from the trunk of a single red cedar tree. Voss and Luxton modified the craft extensively for ocean voyaging, raising its sides, installing a deck and adding internal structural support. They also added a keel, rudder with cable steering, cabin and cockpit. Three short masts were installed in Tilikum to make up its modified schooner rig. Water tanks were tucked under the cockpit, and a miniature wood-fired cookstove was shoe-horned into the after part of the cabin on the starboard side.
On July 6, Tilikum and its crew of two began the great adventure, setting out from Vancouver Island. At sea, Voss called upon his sailing expertise when tinkering with different sail combinations and relocating ballast, so that by the time Tilikum reached the first port of call, Penrhyn Island, Voss knew the handling capabilities of his boat very well. At Penrhyn, friendly islanders welcomed and treated Voss and Luxton in grand style, providing them with entertainment and provisions.
Similar greetings met Tilikum at most islands on the voyage to Samoa. Differences, however, began to arise between Voss and Luxton; at one point, according to Luxton, Voss threatened to toss him into the ocean. By the time they reached the port of Suva in Fiji, the discord between the men had caused irreparable damage to their sailing relationship. That and Luxton’s slowly weakening physical condition meant a decision had to be made. Luxton left Tilikum, and the Voss/Luxton sailing partnership dissolved.
Before leaving Suva, Voss signed on a new mate, a competent seaman from Tasmania named Louis Bergent. But Bergent eventually fared worse than Luxton. When Tilikum arrived at Sydney, Australia, Voss was alone. He reported that Bergent had been washed overboard during the voyage, along with Tilikum’s only compass. After refitting Tilikum, Voss visited and lectured at various Australian ports. Disaster struck, however, at Melbourne, when Tilikum was dropped and shattered while being lifted to a rail car for an inland tour. Undeterred by the accident, Voss patched up the splintered hull, then rigorously checked its seaworthiness before again continuing Tilikum’s tour.
Tilikum left Hobart, Tasmania, for a tour of New Zealand before finally sailing for the Coral Sea on Aug. 17, 1902. Voss toured in South African waters for an extended period and then sailed for St. Helena and Pernambuco. After a refit in Brazil, Tilikum touched at the Azores and then headed for England, arriving three years and three months after leaving Victoria. More lecturing and exhibiting of Tilikum (always for a fee) followed. But Voss apparently tired of his hardy little sailing canoe, and disposed of it before he left England. He died in poverty in California but not before publishing a book that included his sailing experiences with Tilikum.
What happened to the boat? By mere chance, a British Columbia naval man traveling in Britain in 1928 recognized Tilikum — abandoned and deteriorating on the Thames River mud flats. The canoe was shipped home to Victoria and eventually restored. In 1965, Tilikum was adopted by the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, where it resides today, oddly appealing in white paint and fresh canvas, a star artifact of the museum’s collection.