S/M-1 Canoe, “Tilikum” (Voss)


Canoe, "Tilikum" (Voss)

32' x 1.5 Tons

22" Dia. Cone Type Sea Anchor


File S/M-1, derived from the writings of John Claus Voss and Norman Kenny Luxton - Vessel name Tilikum, converted Siwash Indian war canoe, hailing port Victoria B.C., LOA 32' x Beam 5' x Draft 36" x 1.5 Tons - Sea anchor, four-foot long, 22-inch diameter canvas cone used in conjunction with a mizzen sail - Deployed in numerous storms during voyage from Victoria B.C. (May 19, 1901) to Tahiti, Australia, South Africa, and finally England (September 2, 1904).

This is one of the earliest recorded cases of a small sailing vessel using a sea anchor to negotiate heavy weather offshore. Mention of the use of the device is made in The Venturesome Voyages Of Captain Voss and Luxton's Pacific Crossing (Gray's Publishing, 1968 and 1971). Both books have been out of print but Grafton Books has recently issued a reprint of the former, now entitled Venturesome Voyages, in its "Mariner's Library" series.

Little is known of the life of John Voss, the father of drag devices. He was born in about 1854, some say in Newfoundland, others Nova Scotia, and yet others Sweden. His seafaring life seems to have begun in 1877 when as a young man he went to sea in large sailing vessels. By 1901 he was a hardened seaman, having served as master on many sailing ships plying the fur trade from Victoria to Yokohama. Much controversy surrounds him in his later years. Some maintain that he was eventually lost at sea. It is more likely, however, that he died in San Francisco in 1922, while earning a living driving a bus there.

The vessel making the remarkable 1901-1904 circumnavigation was a converted 32-ft. Siwash Indian dugout which, according to her owner, had been in many Indian battles on the West Coast of British Columbia. She was given the name Tilikum, a Chinook word meaning "friend." During the voyage to the South Pacific the crew of the Tilikum consisted of John Claus Voss, captain, and Norman Kenny Luxton, mate. The two later fell out with each other. Voss's attitude toward the sea was a very conservative one. He was not one to take anything for granted out there and dealt with the unpredictable forces of nature in a cautious, methodical way.

Wrote Norman Luxton, "Voss's ideas were very much more scientific in weathering a storm... he knew his business, and he learned it by going easy. I only once ever saw Voss take a chance. He never gave a storm any benefit of any doubt, and he never sailed until he even lost a sheet, always anticipating trouble. Many's the hell he has given me for not taking in sail when perhaps I should have." (Luxton's Pacific Crossing.)

"Captain Voss Patent Sea And Surf Anchor." From a hand sketch believed to be Voss's own. (Courtesy of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia).
"Captain Voss Patent Sea And Surf Anchor." From a hand sketch believed to be Voss's own. (Courtesy of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia).

 Voss told Luxton about how he would heave-to in a storm on what he called, a "sea anchor." He had gotten the idea from an old sailor in the North Sea. Tilikum's sea anchor consisted of an iron barrel hoop about twenty two inches in diameter, with a four-foot canvas cone sewn on (see image).

It was used in a total of sixteen heavy gales during the three year circumnavigation. To quote Luxton, "Once, for seventeen days the Tilikum rode to such an appliance and a drag, and never shipped a cup of water. The weather was composed of samples of everything that the misnamed Pacific could put up."

Voss maintained that a stationary hull was better able to retain its buoyancy - rise to the seas. The same hull moving at speed through the water, he argued, was "held down by suction" and susceptible to great damage by boarding seas. In Venturesome Voyages he appendixed some twenty paragraphs of advice, where we find the following:

I will go a little further, claiming - and I have absolute confidence in doing so - that on no occasion while in charge of a vessel which was hove-to under storm sail in a violent gale, have I shipped a sea that caused any damage to ship or outfit, even though the storm sails had been carried away by the force of the wind. And the same applies to the small boats I have sailed on long cruises when they were hove-to under sea anchor and riding sail. (Venturesome Voyages, Grafton Books, 1989.)

Voss's philosophy was to go into a defensive posture - heave-to - long before the seas built too high or began breaking. Head sails were first dropped and the vessel made to head up into the seas. The sea anchor was then lowered and its cable let out. The heavy mizzen was then set as a riding sail. Thus, if the bow fell off to one side it could only yaw so far before the sea anchor and the mizzen brought it back to face into the teeth of the gale. Using this tactic, Voss and crew were able to survive a 1912 typhoon off the coast of Japan in Sea Queen, a little yawl, 19 feet on the waterline! The outer fringes of the typhoon lifted the roof off Yokohama Station and drove a large steamer ashore.

This idea of "a cone and a riding sail" has entered into the folklore of heavy weather tactics. To this day your authors receive inquiries about the so-called Voss method. Both the Coast Guard report (CG-D-20-87, Investigation of the Use of Drogues to Improve the Safety of Sailing Yachts) and the Wolfson RORC report have concluded that small, cone-type sea anchors are generally ineffective and unstable on their own. Both indicate the need for larger devices for use off the bow.

Earl Hinz renders a similar verdict in Understanding Sea Anchors And Drogues (Cornell Maritime Press, 1987). It has to be pointed out, also, that small conical sea anchors tend to put inordinate strains on rudders and their fittings as well.

Lin and Larry Pardey have modified and modernized Voss's method of heaving-to with great success on their own boats. They have replaced Voss's small conical sea anchor with a larger parachute-type device, and his canvas mizzen with a modern storm trysail. Using these they have ridden out various storms with success - see Files S/M-3 & 4.

In 1965 Tilikum was restored and moved into the Maritime Museum of British Columbia in Victoria's Bastion Square. She - and her crude drag devices - can be seen there today, along with some other famous sailboats, among them John "Hurricane" Guzzwell's Trekka. A fact-finding mission to the Maritime Museum of British Columbia is highly recommend (read good excuse for a wonderful little vacation).

From Seattle take the high speed ferry to the delightful port of Victoria, then relax and immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of a seafaring past. Stand on the wharf, close your eyes, and you may imagine that you hear the clanging of ship's bells and the noise and commotion that surrounds the arrival of a big, three-masted bark, after a difficult passage from Yokohama. The gaunt, tired Captain Voss leans silently over the rail. The first mate shouts orders as men with salt-crusted beards furl and tidy sails from their lofty perches up in the sky. Waiting on the wharf are the wives and children of the seamen, dressed in the attire of the late 1800s. A seagull cries out. The last yardarm is secured. The ship coasts to a perfect docking. Lines are heaved ashore. If you press your imagination a little more you may even see the horse-drawn carts lined up on the wharf, the horses flicking their tails impatiently.

D/T-5 Trimaran, Kelsall


Trimaran, Kelsall

30' x 24' x 1 Ton

18" Dia. Conical Drogue

Force 9-10 Conditions


File D/T-5, obtained from Michael Redvers Golding, Slough, UK. - Vessel name Gazelle, hailing port Poole, Dorset, modified Stripling 28 trimaran designed by Derek Kelsall, LOA 30' x Beam 24' x Draft 4' (12" board up) x 1 Ton - Drogue: Custom-made 18" diameter cone on 200' x 5/8" nylon braid tether, with bridle arms of 40' each - Full trip line - Deployed in a whole gale in mid-Atlantic with winds of 40-50 knots and seas of 30 ft. - Vessel's stern yawed 20° with the helm lashed - Drift was estimated to be about 25 nm during 10 hours of deployment.


Transoceanic racing skipper Mike Redvers Golding has been in many offshore gales. In 1989 his slender racing trimaran Gazelle came to grief off the Shetland Isles during the Round Britain Race. In an article appearing in the December 1989 issue of Multihull, he recounts the harrowing events that led to the loss of his boat (reproduced courtesy of Multihull):

We were only 20 miles off the Shetlands, a lee shore, and 30 miles from our turning point, the infamous Muckle Flugga. Once round the headland we could head off south toward Lerwick.... I would normally have lain to the drogue in these conditions but the lee shore was far too close for comfort. We had spent some time beating, which although painful felt very safe until we could no longer climb the mounting seas.... The noise level rose to fever pitch as Gazelle was picked up by another nasty sea.... It was a slow sickening roll, not at all what I had imagined, with a crash as the port float met the water.... Water rushed below, filling the boat to chest level.... Then came the immortal words, "We've capsized."

Golding and first mate activated the EPIRB and took to a life raft. They were later picked up by a Scottish Search And Rescue helicopter and taken to Lerwick. In the same article Golding writes, "Our proximity to land prevented me from lying to the drogue, although I am sure that this would have prevented the capsize, having ridden out storms with Gazelle which were of equal magnitude, although in the open ocean." Victor Shane contacted Michael Redvers Golding about his previous use of the drogue and Golding then sent the following for inclusion in the DDDB. The drogue was an 18-inch diameter cone, custom made by a sailmaker. Mike used it in an Atlantic gale while participating in the 1988 CSTAR. The cone reduced the speed of the lightweight (2,000 lb.) trimaran from more than 12 knots to about 2.5 knots, with steering generally unnecessary. Transcript:

I have experimented with many methods of lying a-hull and lying to drogues, and must confess that I have reached no definitive conclusion. For simplicity I now consider that there are three basic weather conditions which the skipper must prepare for:

1) HEAVY. It is my opinion that in the event that the weather is unlikely to deteriorate further it is often the safest course of action to sail on with a well prepared boat, an alert helmsman and a linear reduction in sail area.

2) SEVERE. With a multihull it is often necessary to only take the edge off the most extreme turns of speed. In this situation it is prudent to tow warps or lay to a drogue over the stern, which slows the boat to an acceptable speed, preventing surges and reducing the risk of tripping.

3) SURVIVAL. When conditions reach the ultimate for a given craft it seems logical that a strong sea anchor system with a bridle over the bows is the best of a bad lot. As you know survival conditions are rare, though consideration must be given when setting up the boat in the previous category as to whether or not the situation will deteriorate to survival condition, as re-organizing the boat may be both difficult and dangerous.

I will state again that it is my confirmed opinion that Gazelle would not have capsized had we been lying to the drogue. At the time we were too close to a lee shore and the drogue we carried would have only slowed us to around 2.5-3 knots. No doubt there are sea anchors which could have slowed us further, however I doubt that my decision would be much different taking all the factors into account.


Victor Shane forwarded literature on para-anchors to Golding. Had Gazelle been equipped with such a device she would probably have been able to stand off the lee shore, the currents off the Shetlands permitting. The 43-ft. catamaran Ariel did as much in file S/C-6A.