In June 1851, a sleek, high-masted sailing ship eased out of New York Harbor and steered southward, picking up the ocean wind. Its destination: San Francisco, on the far coast of the Americas. The vessel, a clipper, was the Flying Cloud.
This was at the height of the California gold rush. In the era before long-distance rail travel, the fastest way for eastern fortune seekers to get to the U.S. West Coast was by clipper. The passage was fraught with peril, particularly in rounding Cape Horn at the lower tip of South America. And despite the relative speed of a clipper ship, the trip was agonizingly slow for seasick passengers eager to fill their pockets with the rumored treasure. It took at least three months.
On this voyage, the Flying Cloud arrived at the Golden Gate in 89 days, 21 hours.
The Classic New England Clipper
The Flying Cloud was a product of Donald McKay’s shipbuilding firm in Massachusetts. Launched in Spring 1851, it was a square-rigged three-master, 229 feet long and 41 feet in the beam. Even as it took shape, the press and public sensed that here was a marvel in the making.
Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow intently watched the Flying Cloud’s construction. He described in detailed rhyme its slide down the skids into the water on launch day. “She leaps into the ocean’s arms!” he enthused.
Within weeks of launching, the new clipper set forth to earn its place in history.
The Flying Cloud Rounds the Horn to the Gate
When the California gold rush began in 1848, it typically took a sailing vessel from the U.S. East Coast at least half a year to make the voyage around Cape Horn and up the western coast of South America. Rabid treasure hunters were willing to invest all their money to make the fastest time. New England clipper ships were the swiftest carriers. They competed to decrease the coast-to-coast time.
The Flying Cloud was born for the race.
Ninety-six days was the current record time from New York to San Francisco, set by the clipper Surprise, when the Flying Cloud began its maiden voyage from the East River early on the afternoon of 2 June 1851. Its commander was savvy, seasoned Capt. Josiah P. Creesy.
Three days out, the ship was damaged seriously in an Atlantic gale. The crew repaired broken topmasts as the vessel approached the doldrums, where it languished in calm, windless seas.
Creesy soon came to realize his crew were of dubious reliability. Some had never sailed – they’d shipped aboard as “seamen” to obtain free passage to the gold fields.
Capt. Creesy had been chosen as the Flying Cloud’s skipper because of his reputation for getting the most from his crews. He proved worthy of the owners’ trust even in this situation. Despite ominous grumblings, severe gales, broken rigging and snowstorms off Cape Horn, he steadily worked the Cloud to its destination. Its speed at moments topped 18 knots – unprecedented in the era of sail. It would be years before even a steamship equaled some of its daily times.
The Flying Cloud docked at San Francisco on 31 August after a record-setting epic, three hours under 89 days.
Much of the credit for the ships stunning feat was due to its navigator: Eleanor Creesy, wife of the captain. Mrs. Creesy, a native of Marblehead, Massachusetts, had studied ocean currents, astronomical navigation and nautical weather patterns since her youth. She demonstrated her skill in vital fashion as the Flying Cloud found its way around notorious Cape Horn. In one instance, with visibility too murky to see far ahead, she advised the captain to shift course. According to her dead reckoning, they were fast approaching a rocky land point indicated on the charts. As it proved, her calculations were precisely accurate.
Two yars later, the clipper shortened its own time for the east-to-west coast journey by 13 hours. The Flying Cloud’s 1853 record was not bested until 1989, as modern racing yachts equipped with state-of-the-art technology pursued their own brand of New York-to-San Francisco “challenge.”
The End of the Flying Cloud
International changes in supply and demand during the 1850s eroded the Flying Cloud’s importance in the round-the-Horn clipper competition. It was sold to the Black Ball Line in England in 1862 and sent on voyages to Australia and New Zealand. By the early 1870s, it was relegated to bringing timber from Canada to Britain.
The famous clipper ran aground near Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1874. It was demolished; some of its parts were salvaged for use on newer ships.
Josiah Creesy died in 1871, Eleanor in 1900.