“Life is too short to delay enjoying it” is the motto of Tim Voss, the captain of the S.S. Legacy. And when meeting him one can immediately tell how perfect he is for this job, as he is a contented man with years of experience at the helm of small ships. After walking away from this interview, I felt at ease aboard his vessel, excited about the S.S. Legacy and her incredible team and fortunate for being able to be a part of it all.

Tim Voss is a contented man with years of experience at the helm of small ships.

I met Tim Voss while on the Alaska’s Glaciers & Whales trip and immediately felt inspired. Taking charge of the 90-guest replica 1898 Coast Gold Rush Steamer that sails in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska is no small feat, as she needs to be maneuvered around bergy bits and through vast coves and narrow passages. In this interview Captain Voss details how he started his career, why he gave up a great executive job to get back out on the water and the values that keep him and his team going strong.

Captain Tim Voss on the bridge aboard small ship S.S. Legacy in Alaska.
S.S. Legacy small ship cruising Alaskan glacial fjords.

How did you get into this career? Walk us through your history as a Captain.

I started out my maritime career as a commercial fisherman in the Bering Sea during the heyday of the 1980s crab boom. I basically answered an ad in the newspaper for Alaskan jobs and was hired and got on a ship in Tacoma, WA and traveled to Dutch Harbor, AK and began my career at sea. I loved the sea, ships, and everything about the industry, except I was tired of fishing vessels.

In 1996 I fell in love with this type of work and have been doing it ever since.

I joined a maritime union in Seattle and began shipping out on merchant ships. When I got my first merchant marine credentials, there was no work available, so I went back to the fishing industry as a first officer on a large factory ship. After 2 years I became the captain of the ship. It was about 360′ long and had a crew of 160 people. We processed fish and crab at sea. 

I had heard about small US flag passenger vessels, but did not know anyone in that part of the industry. A friend had taken a job in the office of a company called Alaska Sightseeing (later called Cruise West). I was intrigued and applied. My boss now was my boss then. That was in 1996. I fell in love with this type of work and have been doing it ever since.

S.S. Legacy Captain Tim Voss on small ship cruise skiff excursion in Alaska.

Your most spectacular Alaska wildlife encounter? 

The orca were all jumping out of the water, tail slapping, spy hopping… We watched them for hours.

That is an interesting question and hard to answer as I have had so many over the years. I would have to say encountering a super pod of killer whales in Fredrick Sound. A super pod happens when several orca families from different pods meet up and socialize and inter breed. The one I saw had over 100 animals in it. They were all jumping out of the water, tail slapping, spy hopping, and generally just having a great time. We watched them for hours.

Favorite landing site on the Alaska’s Glaciers & Whales itinerary? 

Thomas Bay, especially the Baird Moraine Hike, but also the Cascade Creek Trail. Thomas Bay is just a magical place with an incredible backdrop of mountains.

S.S. Legacy small ship cruise in Alaska.

If you could go back in time and be the Captain of any ship… which would it be? 

Probably the HMS Beagle. The ship that carried Charles Darwin around the world. So many new places and animal and plant species were found on that voyage. A fascinating time in maritime history.

Have you ever learned anything from a passenger that has stuck with you? 

I once had a guest from Alice Springs in Australia. She was 9 years old and never had experienced rain. The look on her face during a summer rain squall in SE Alaska was priceless.

Is there any particular item you always make sure you have packed for a voyage? 

I generally work 6 weeks straight. 7 days a week with limited internet and no TV. I try and pack at least 3 new books I have not read yet.

Captain Tim Voss aboard S.S. Legacy small ship cruise in Alaska.

What is your proudest moment as a Captain? 

It is humbling and I am fortunate to be a part of it.

I don’t have one, but I would say when a trip ends and everything just went right. The crew are clicking and the guests had a great vacation. It is humbling and I am fortunate to be a part of it.

Are you a Captain for only the S.S. legacy? Or other ships too? 

I am the full-time captain of the SS Legacy, but I have run all her other UnCruise sister ships at one time or another and sometimes find myself on them as an emergency fill-in. Last year in addition to the SS Legacy, I spent 3 weeks on the Safari Quest doing the Pacific Northwest itineraries, and I delivered the Safari Explorer from Seattle to Hawaii.

Guests spotting wildlife from the bow of the small ship S.S. Legacy in Alaska.

I heard you worked in the S.S. Legacy’s mainland office for a while, and then asked to be sent back out to the seas. What called you back? 

I was Vice President of Nautical Operations. I loved that job, but office life was never for me and I don’t live in Seattle, so I was commuting home only on the weekends and never had much of a life. I took a long break and then decided to go back to what I love best, being in the field and running ships. When I left my role as VP, I decided to continue to renew my captains license with the USCG and leave my options open. I volunteered to fill in on an emergency basis.

Leaving the executive job to go back to my roots, I think of this JFK quote, “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to sea, whether it is to sail or to watch – we are going back from whence we came.”

My first fill in was 2 weeks on the S.S. Legacy on the River and it absolutely brought back a time in my life I was happiest at work. Later that summer I found out the full-time captain was leaving, so I asked to take the job. When I think about my decision to leave a high end executive shore side job and go back to my roots, I think of a quote from JFK: “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to sea, whether it is to sail or to watch – we are going back from whence we came.”

Where is home for you when not acting as Captain?

 I live on 10 acres on Whidbey Island in Washington State with my wife and brand new puppy Gibbs. 

What are your 3 favorite things about this ship? 

  1. Her maneuverability and power when I need it. She handles extremely well.
  2. The ship’s wheel, it is beautiful and very functional. I like to steer with a wheel.
  3. Her crew. They are very seasoned and I enjoy working with them.
Whistle aboard small ship S.S. Legacy.

Can you tell me more about the ship’s whistles? 

We have the standard air horn for sounding signals as well as the fog horn. In addition we have a whistle that was formerly an air raid siren and a whistle off a tug boat that is very baritone. Those last two came from Dan Blanchard (the owner and CEO of the ship), they were on his father’s tug boat.

Can you tell me how the S.S. Legacy’s Sea Dragon adventure platform got its name? 

Right then and there I knew we had a name as we were going to tow our first kayak utility launch platform at sea and launch kayaks from it.

I named it. We held a contest and I had 42 entries for names and I did not gravitate to any of them. I was doing some research on various ship projects from the past and was reading about a planned project in 1962. It was going to tow the world’s largest rocket behind a ship and launch it at sea. It was called “Project Sea Dragon.” Well, right then and there I knew we had a name as we were going to tow our first kayak utility launch platform at sea and launch kayaks from it.

What was the drawing board-to-production process behind the Sea Dragon? 

When we decided to try and use the SS Legacy as an adventure ship, we needed a way to safely get folks on and off the ship and into kayaks. We were going to build an easy dock platform off the stern like our other ships we have converted. Myself and the crew hated the idea of destroying the nice rounded stern of the ship and sticking a kayak platform back there. We brain stormed as a crew and thought of the idea of just towing a boat with all our gear instead of converting the ship.

I presented the idea to Dan Blanchard and he started brainstorming with an naval architect and operations staff. After many sketches and concepts, the Sea Dragon as you know it went from paper to the weld shop and we took possession of it about 3 weeks prior to our 2018 season. I love it.

Kayaks aboard small ship cruise S.S. Legacy.
Kayak excursion aboard small ship cruise on S.S. Legacy.

What is the quirkiest thing about the S.S. Legacy? 

Her elevator. She is the only ship in our fleet with an elevator, but the original builders did not bring the elevator all the way to the sun deck. It stops at the owners suite. I never understood why!

I have heard a good percentage of the crew are dedicated to the S.S. Legacy and keep coming back staff it. Why do you think that is? 

Providing good leadership to the crew, a safe working environment, and a happy fun work place really helps in the retention side of things.

We operate our ships with what we call a “vessel management team.” This consists of the captain, the expedition leader, the chief engineer, the hotel manager, the chef, and the chief mate. The team on the SS Legacy has been together a while and are very experienced. I think providing good leadership to the crew, a safe working environment, and a happy fun work place really helps in the retention side of things. Our galley team is a large part of it as well as they take the time to prepare the crew very healthy and varied meals. As crew members, we have 4 core values we deeply believe in: 

Our Core Values:

  1. Be good to one another. We cannot teach you to care as much about others as you care about yourself. You have to bring that.
  2. Get a little better every day. Mediocrity is boring.
  3. Make different mistakes. Try things, and sometimes fail. But learn from them, and teach others.
  4. Do the right thing. Enough said. 

As a team, we will rally around our motto: Work hard, have fun, be awesome. Anyway, sounds corny, but we believe in this and I believe it makes our ship a stronger work place.

Sunset from the bow of the S.S. Legacy small ship cruise in Alaska.

Learn what it is like to cruise through Alaska aboard the S.S. Legacy in my Expert Review: Alaska’s Glaciers & Whales where we visited expansive glaciers and went on many incredible day hikes.