Lashed to the shrouds of the mizzenmast aboard the clipper ship Flying Cloud, Capt. Josiah Perkins Creesy peered into the whirling snow of a northeasterly storm off Tierra del Fuego on July 21, 1851, well into winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Dead ahead, about 10 miles away, was the entrance to the Strait of Le Maire.
The strait (between Cabo San Diego and Isla de los Estados at the southern tip of South America) presented the fastest route from the South Atlantic to Cape Horn, a shortcutbut not one for the fainthearted. Fierce tides opposing the swells of the Southern Ocean made the place dangerous for square-riggersthat and the fact the Strait was only 14 miles wide. Creesy caught sight of a large ship, her sails in tatters, before she disappeared into the gloom of the deepening twilight. He added the threat of collision to his worries.
The swift tidal currents and the shallows of the continental shelf created steep, confused seas that raked the ship, which sailed under reefed topsails. As the wind increased and visibility dropped to almost zero, Creesy drove toward the Strait. He kept the ship’s men at their stations, shouted orders at the helmsmen struggling at the wheel, and cursed the weather that had already robbed him of two days on the ship’s maiden voyage from New York to San Francisco. Ultimately, though, acting on the advice of his wife, Eleanor, who served as navigator, Creesy turned north to wait for the weather to break. The risk of sailing on was too great.
July of 1851 was the height of the gold rush and near the peak of the clipper ship era that reached its zenith in 1853. The clippers lasted longer than that, of course. But the golden age of sail in American maritime history was less than a decade long. Iron-hulled windjammers replaced the wooden clippers on the world’s sailing routes in the second half of the nineteenth century. The clippers were the fastest sailing ships ever to come out of shipyards in the days of sail. With their sharp bows, narrow beam, and great length sparred with lofty masts higher than all other vessels then afloat, hard-driving captains like Creesy were smashing speed records on the run from New York to San Francisco. The latest 1851 record was set by the clipper Surprise on her 96-day run to the Golden Gate on March 18. Josiah Creesy was determined to beat her.
Built by Donald McKay at his East Boston shipyard, Flying Cloud showed great promise of besting Surprise’s time. At 225 feet on deck, she was the largest clipper ship in the fleet aside from the clipper ship Challenge built by a rival of McKay’s who was aiming to outdo him. The clipper ship era was about competitionbetween shipping companies, captains, and builders.
Troubles plagued Flying Cloud throughout her maiden voyage. Shortly after her departure from New York on June 2, the main and mizzen topgallant pole masts carried away. Creesy kept the ship on course while the crew made repairs. He drove hard in all weather, eventually leading to additional damage to the rig. The mainmast and main masthead both sprung, weakening the rig. The main topsail yard twice suffered damage. Creesy kept driving on, hoping to get to San Francisco in record time. In the days of the clippers, crewmen often signed on just to get to the goldfields of California. They were tough men, prone to mutiny. References to shootings, stabbings, and other mutinous acts fill the logbooks. Off Buenos Aires, irritated with Creesy, two crewmen sabotaged the ship by drilling holes through the deck to let water into the hold to spoil the cargo, valued in freight charges at approximately $50,000. Creesy put them in irons, but released them the next day because he needed all the men he could muster to keep driving the ship.
After doubling the Horn, as Flying Cloud headed northward up the South Pacific, the Creesys experienced thrilling sailing. The ship logged 374 nautical miles in one day and hit speeds of 18 knots or more in the squalls. It would be another quarter century before ocean-going steamships attained sustained speeds equal to Flying Cloud’s. A little more than a month after the storm off Tierra del Fuego, Flying Cloud set a new record, arriving at San Francisco just 89 days, 21 hours.
Much of the success of the voyage rested on the abilities of Creesy’s wife. Eleanor learned navigation from her father, a schoonerman sailing out of her and her husband’s hometown of Marblehead, Mass. When she and Josiah were married in 1841, she went to sea with him aboard his ship Oneida, which was engaged in the China tea trade, and served as navigator.
In the late 1840s, Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury, superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory, charted the winds and currents of the oceans based on logs from Navy and merchant ships. Using Maury’s charts and sailing directions, Eleanor found the best winds throughout the voyage. She found the narrowest bands of the doldrums, sailing through the calms between trade winds in a remarkable three days in the Atlantic and one day in the Pacific, an area where ships were often becalmed for days and even weeks.
Josiah and Eleanor Creesy sailed Flying Cloud to yet another record run from New York to San Francisco. In 1854, the ship shaved 13 hours off her previous best time, making the passage in 89 days, eight hours. Given the difficulties ships encountered on the 16,000-mile voyages from the East to the West Coast, it was remarkable for a single ship to set the two fastest passages. More remarkable still was the fact that Flying Cloud’s lines did not differ radically from the other, much larger clippers that followed her, each with a master driving to best her times. None succeeded.
Flying Cloud’s monohull record from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn stood for 135 years, until 1989, when a modern racing boat, Thursday’s Child, made the run in 80 days. Other vessels have sailed the Gold Rush Race, as it is called now, even faster than that. In 1994, French racing star Isabelle Autissier made the passage in 62 days. In 1998, an open class 60 with a canting keel and a rotating, wing-shaped mast, Aquitaine Innovations, set the latest record with a passage of 57 days.
Flying Cloud made five voyages from New York to San Francisco under Josiah’s command and one under another master. Her masts were cut down twice to enable smaller crews to handle her. By 1857, the speedy clipper was in bad shape. Freight charges had dropped from $60 per ton in the early 1850s to just $10 per ton. A worldwide depression further strained the finances of clipper ship owners. Many clippers were converted into barges or resorted to hauling guano (bird droppings used for fertilizer and to make explosives).
Flying Cloud lay idle for two years. She was ultimately chartered, then sold. In 1874, she ran aground off Saint John, New Brunswick, and was deemed a total loss. The following year, she was burned for her copper fittings. It was a sad end to the most famous of all American clipper ships. But her name lives on 150 years later, hers and the name of the Creesys, a truly remarkable couple that made a lasting mark on the history of the U.S. merchant marine.