Captain John Claus Voss FRGS

by John M. MacFarlane 2002

John Claus Voss was born about 1858 near Elmshorn Schleseig-Holstein, Germany. His exact date of birth is uncertain but he was reported to have been 71 years old at the time of his death which would put his birth around 1850. Two sources put his birth at 1858 near Elmshorn in Schlesweig-Holstein. It is said that he began his maritime career in 1877.

He was a distinguished, heavy set man. From his photographs we see him in a traditional master's uniform, sporting gold braid and naval style cap of the time, with a large dark handlebar mustache. Described as portly and round-faced, very quick in his actions, about 5' 3" or 5' 4" in height, is borne out by his surviving portraits. Prior to coming ashore in British Columbia, Voss worked his way through the ranks and positions of the merchant service under sail. We know for sure that he was the Chief Mate on the ship Prussia, in 1892 sailing across the Pacific.

Subsequent to that he held command of vessels as Master which entitled him to be called "Captain." Voss operated a small hotel and butcher shop in Chemainus BC prior to 1900. During this time it is reported that he was engaged in the unsavory practice of "shanghai." In the evenings, while tending bar, Voss would slip "knock-out drops" into the drinks of naive or unsuspecting seamen. In the morning, no doubt with a monumental hangover, they would awaken in the forecastle of a ship on its way to the orient as unwilling crew members. For this trade in human cargo Voss was well paid by ship masters unable or unwilling to recruit crew members legally.

Norman Luxton makes note that Voss was under suspicion by the United States Revenue Cutter Grant of smuggling Chinese immigrants into the United States. Voss charted a course which kept him clear of all American possessions including Hawaii which would have been a stop midway to the South Pacific. The stories apparently recounted to Luxton by Voss on long dogwatches of smuggling dope into Vancouver Island and immigrants into California may truly have been the reason. Later on Luxton was well known in Banff Alberta and longtime residents there have recounted tthe stories he told of fearing for his own life while sailing with Voss.

Voss owned the Queen's Hotel in Victoria and would later own the Hotel Victoria. In 1897 George Haffner told him that treasure hunting on Cocos Island off Central America was to be the objective of an expedition then being formed. Haffner wove a complex net involving the Royal Navy, the Government of Ecuador (rightful owners of such a treasure) and Voss himself around the notion of recovering millions in gold said to be buries on the shores of the island.Voss purchased a 10 ton vessel called the Xora and sailed south.

Voss met Norman Luxton in a Victoria hotel bar over a beer, and Luxton recalled:

"I met Jack Voss in a bar and we began to talk. Over a beer we spoke of ships and crossing the Pacific in a small boat. From an imagined sea adventure it became a possibility when I agreed to buy a Siwash canoe and have it fitted to go to sea." (Luxton, E.G. (Ed.) (1971). Page 12)

He lectured throughout his voyage to raise funds for repairs and provisions. Included were many geographical and scientific societies as well as yacht and sailing clubs. Further allusion to dark periods in Voss' character is reported by Norman Luxton:

"Dangerous as were the storms and calms of the Pacific, they were as nothing compared to the clash of our personalities. Before we ever reached Apia, Samoa, we hated each other, and I was certain Voss intended to do me harm." (Luxton, E.G. (Ed.) (1971))

Voss was married and had two sons and one daughter. Sometime during this period Voss became divorced from his wife who then became the Housekeeper at the Dominion Hotel on Yates Street. Mrs. Voss moved, shortly afterwards, to Portland Oregon with her daughter Carolyn (later Mrs. Kuhn.)

In 1905 Voss arrived in Guayaquil Ecuador with a Mr. Clifton for an expedition which seems to have failed. Voss returned to Victoria in 1906 and acquired the St. Francis Hotel (Oriental Hotel) on lower Yates Street in Victoria BC which was sold in 1907. In 1906 he was appointed as the "captain" of the the lifeboat Quadra stationed at Victoria BC. Propelled by oars the lifeboat was intended to be towed to scenes of disaster requiring such assistance. He resigned in October of the same year in dispute over the rates of pay he received.

He took the schooner Jessy from Victoria to the Columbia River in 1907. Soon after that he became a partner in the 50' green-hulled Ella G. in an unsuccessful sealing venture with the Japanese. Voss left the area moving to Japan where he operated for many years remaining out of contact with his Canadian friends and associates. Among other vessels he was the Master of 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 the money to purchase the Sea Queen in 1912 with two Yokohama yachtsmen (F. Stone & S.A. Vincent) as partners.

While awaiting his compensation payment by the Japanese Government Voss then attempted a cruise around the world from Yokohama Japan in the Sea Queen. This vessel was built along the lines of the Sea Bird (25.6' x 8.25' x 3.5') with a sail area of 400 square feet. He was thwarted by a typhoon which finished the voyage.

Voss' book The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss was published privately at Yokohama Japan in 1913. In reviewing the transcriptof his own notes for the text is would seem that the first editor of his manuscript undertook a major rewrite so extensive that it changed the clour and complexion of the story. Many details are omitted, distorting the ordeals and accomplishments. It could be speculated that the original text, which is written phonetically as one imagines Voss to have spoken, did not capture the vitality of the stories recounted by Voss personally to his editor. Perhaps the editor acted as a ghost writer to embellish the text to make it more commercially marketable. While living in Japan Voss earned the respect and friendship of the yachtsmen at the Yokohama Yacht Club. Contrary to the many authors and writers who have 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 seems to have given up the sea when he moved to Tracey California in 1918 losing touch with many of his colleagues spawning the popular story that he was lost at sea during a voyage in the Sea Queen. The family dispersed to Washington, Oregon and Colorado and he apparently became estranged from his wife. His last days, from 1920 onward, were occupied driving a Ford motor car as a "jitney" or taxi in the town of Tracey California where he died of pneumonia February 27, 1922.

"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". – Norman Luxton.

Captain Voss had and still retains a reputation for being a superior seaman in small vessels. "Voss knew the sea. He knew what to do at the right time and he did it. He always never took a chance and quit the sealing game in the Bering Sea for that reason. As a sailor there was never anyone quite so wonderful; winds, weather, water, currents, dead reckoning, he had no equal in his time." (Luxton, E.G. (Ed.) (1971). P. 22) The Tilikum experienced extraordinary conditions which tested both the qualities of the vessel and the skills of her crew. Luxton recalled:

"August 8th my diary says, having not touched it for three days, such confounded weather would take the heart out of anything ... This storm came up fast... This gale kept up for almost thirty-six hours, with waves quite thirty-five feet high. It was one of the very few times I wished myself on land. It is a queer sensation to be thirty-five feet below a wall of water, that looks just as if it were going to fall right on top of you, when suddenly up goes the canoe and there is a roar of water on each side of you that you can't see over, with a path through the wall that the drag has made for the boat to go through. Then down once more you go into the trough of the next wave." (Luxton, E.G. (Ed.) 1971). Pages 76-77)

The text of Voss' book contains some eight pages of notes on seamanship in a small vessel which he felt to be of use to others. These included subjects such as: the nature of waves, the frequency and height of waves, dangers of a broken sea, how to ride out a storm while heaved to, sea anchor use, construction and design, and a table of sizes for sea anchors. This material seems to have been expanded considerbly by the time the book was edited and published. Perhaps Weston Martyr included anecdotal material he garnered from Voss in their conversations in Yokohama... the truth is cloaked in mystery.

Voss was very proud of his own design developed for a sea anchor. At first he experimented with towing an old Indian blanket on the end of rope and then trailling a traditional canvas sea-anchor from the bow while heaved-to in a storm. This latter technique was successful and Voss and the 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.

(Named Geographical Features: Voss Pond (BC), Voss Point (BC)).

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2002) Captain John Claus Voss FRGS. 2002.

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