The Tilikum Canoe

Featured in the June 2009 handbook.

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Into Margate harbour on the 2nd of September, 1904, sailed a small craft of the most unusual appearance. She was a dug-out canoe in which her skipper, Captain John C Voss, had just completed an epic voyage of around 40,000 miles, which began at Victoria, British Columbia, on the 21st of May, 1901.The canoe was named “TILIKUM”; originally fashioned from a single log of red cedar wood by native craftsmen, and already reckoned to be 50years old when purchased by Voss from an old Indian of Vancouver Island. The journey was inspired by a journalist named Luxton, who told Voss of £1,000being offered for the first craft smaller than Captain Slocums “SPRAY” which could emulate her record-breaking journey across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

The overall length of TILUKUM was 38 feet, with a maximum beam of 5 feet6 inches. To prepare her for the daunting task ahead, Voss installed a substantial amount of lead to her keel for stability when carrying the 230 square feet of canvas which he had rigged on the three masts he had stepped in her. Internal ballast complemented that fixed on her keel, and this additional weight naturally caused Tilikum to sit much lower in the water with less freeboard than originally designed. To counter this, and to enable TILIKUM to cope with the huge seas which she would encounter on the oceans, Voss built up her gunwales, increasing their height by 7 inches. He also built a tiny cabin for accommodation and a cockpit aft for shelter whilst conning the craft, the sails of which could also be worked from there by a most ingenious system of block and tackle. Two fresh water tanks of 50 gallons each and lockers for food storage completed the alterations.

The trip started from Victoria with Luxton as mate, but after a few narrow scrapes en route he left the boat at Fiji, being replaced by Louis Bergent, a Tasmanian. He tragically drowned when TILIKUM ran into a huge storm which also damaged the craft, leaving Voss to sail on to Sydney on his own, and without a compass. he too endured close encounters with death, almost being capsized, rundown by a large steamer and being threatened by large waterspouts. Voss was

forced to exhibit TILIKUM in Australia in order to raise funds to continue with the epic voyage and, after many adventures sailing around the coast of Australia with w succession of temporary mates, he finally had enough money to continue on his way, striking out westward in the direction of South Africa.

Once there he was again forced to exhibit the craft to raise funds, finally leaving Cape Town for the shores of South America. The final stage of his journey saw Voss setting out from Pernambuco, Brazil, to the Azores and then on to Margate where, after a most enthusiastic welcome from folk who crowded the old iron jetty as TILIKUM moored alongside, Voss sail her round the harbour were she was put to a mooring. He travelled up to London by train to arrange the exhibition of the TILIKUM but sad to say whilst away the craft was robbed of his personal belongings. On the 17th of September TILIKUM was shipped to London for exhibition at Earls

Court, after which she was sold to a private owner. Her glorious achievements quickly forgotten by the world at large, she finished up on a bleak mooring out on the marshes at Canvey Island, but her luck would eventually change.

In 1928, a Canadian working at the London Embassy was at Canvey bird-watching, and his eye was caught by TILIKUM which he recognised instantly. Concerned that the craft which held an important place in his country’s history was seemingly being allowed to fall to pieces he told the Canadian Government, but they displayed no interest. However, wealthy members of the Greenwich Yacht Club paid for her to be shipped home for preservation in 1930, and she is today on display under cover at Thunderbird Park, British Columbia.

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