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The Navigating Mastery of ‘Flying Cloud’s Eleanor Creesy

One of the greatest records in all of sailing was claimed by the famed clipper ship Flying Cloud, which sailed from New York to San Francisco in 1851 in just under 90 days, then bested that mark three years later. Lost in the lore of Flying Cloud is the story of the ship’s navigator, Eleanor Creesy. To our knowledge, there is no “complete” narrative of Creesy, but rather, a series of anecdotes.* There are no photographs of the iconic navigator, either, even though she lived through the birth and proliferation of photography. (*Thank you to the readers who mentioned David W. Shaw’s book, Flying Cloud: The True Story of America’s Most Famous Clipper Ship and the Woman Who Guided Her, in the comments to this story.)

Born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, in 1814, Creesy learned how to navigate from her father, John Prentiss, captain of the schooner Californian, according to the book A World of Her Own: 24 Amazing Women Explorers and Adventurers“The townsfolk gossiped when Captain Prentiss instructed his daughter in the basics of navigation,” reads A World of Her Own. “They couldn’t understand why he was teaching Eleanor a skill that was practiced solely by men. In the 1820s, very few girls attended school. But Captain Prentiss loved navigation, and since he didn’t have a son as an apprentice, he saw no reason not to pass his knowledge on to his clever and interested daughter.”

While we can’t find any pictures of Eleanor Creesy, there is no shortage of illustrations around the legend of Flying Cloud.
© 2021 Wikipedia

“For Eleanor, navigation was not only a joy, but a path to a bigger life than that available to a Marblehead wife,”  A World of Her Own continues. “She wished for a life at sea, and hoped her training in navigation would earn her a place aboard a ship.” At age 26, Eleanor met Captain Josiah Perkins Creesy, who was only six months her senior, but had been in command of a ship for three years. “Eleanor and Perkins’ marriage was a partnership both in love and occupation.”

The Creesys sailed some 10 years aboard Oneida, including several trips to China. But the couple had never been around Cape Horn. In 1851, the captain/navigator duo took command of the Boston-built Flying Cloud, the most famous of the clipper ships built by master designer Donald McKay. In April 1851, a reporter for the Boston Daily Atlas wrote of the new vessel: “If great length [235 ft], sharpness of ends, with proportionate breadth [41 ft] and depth, conduce to speed, the Flying Cloud must be uncommonly swift, for in all these she is great.”

Flying Cloud‘s revolutionary lines ushered in the final act in the Golden Age of Sail.
© 2021 New England Historical Society

Before Flying Cloud made its historic voyage, Creesy read Explanations and Sailing Directions to Accompany the Wind and Current Charts by Matthew Fontaine Maury, who was considered the father of oceanography. The book “was viewed with some skepticism by old ship captains,” according to the New England Historical Society (NEHS). “It was based on exhaustive studies of the logs kept by naval and merchant ships. Maury recommended a new route around Patagonia that  Creesy decided to follow.”

Within six weeks after her 1851 launch, Flying Cloud sailed out of New York Harbor, bound for Cape Horn and then San Francisco. “The first time Eleanor Creesy calculated how far Flying Cloud had traveled in a day, she thought she’d made a mistake,” NEHS wrote. She couldn’t believe the ship was that fast. She checked for mistakes. In one day, Flying Cloud covered 389 miles, a greater distance than had ever been covered in a day, even by steamships.”

Flying Cloud arrived in San Francisco 89 days and 21 hours after departing New York. Typically, the New York-to-San Francisco voyage — which is colloquially known as the “Gold Rush Route” — took some 200 days. “In the wake of their record-setting transit from New York to California, Eleanor and Josiah became instant celebrities,” said Wikipedia. “But their fame was short-lived and their story was quickly forgotten.”

We’re not quite sure who should get credit for this depiction of the 235-ish-ft. Flying Cloud, which went aground off Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1874. Flying Cloud was scrapped for her iron and copper fastenings, according to legend.
© 2021 Unknown

Two years after their historic voyage, Josiah and Eleanor Creesy broke their record by 13 hours, according to NEHS. “They continued to sail together until the Civil War, when Josiah volunteered as a lieutenant, commanding a small clipper ship. After the war, the Creesys retired from the sea and lived on a farm in Salem, Massachusetts. John died in 1871; Eleanor lived to be 85, passing away in August 1900.”

In 1989, Warren Luhrs, aboard the 60-ftThursday’s Child, finally broke Eleanor Creesy’s record, sailing the Gold Rush Route in 80 days and 20 hours. In 1998, skipper Yves Parlier and crew made the passage in the 60-ft Aquitaine Innovations in 57 days and three hours. (In 2008, the 109-ft catamaran Gitana 13 sailed the route in 43 days and 38 minutes.) Finally, in 2013, Giovanni Soldini led an international crew aboard a Volvo 70, sailing the Gold Rush Route in 47 days.

At the awards ceremony in San Francisco, Soldini paid homage to Eleanor Creesy. “She chose a nearly perfect route, with no information, no satellites, no anything. She really was a fantastic navigator. Much better than I.”

7 Comments

  1. Ben Shaw 7 months ago

    Great story to remember on International Women’s Day. Thanks Tim! To date, no one has completed the Gold Rush Route solo and non-stop.

  2. Greg Clausen 7 months ago

    Great story! I have a portrait of that ship in my house because my street is named after it.

  3. David Cohan 7 months ago

    Great story! How about posting this story on your Facebook page, as an excellent contribution to International Women’s Day?

  4. Beau Vrolyk 7 months ago

    While we sailors have great regard for the modern boats which have broken the FLYING CLOUD record. It is important to point out that they used extremely lightweight modern technology and were not carrying cargo.

    Perhaps there should be a record for racing boats and a separate one for cargo vessels, or at the least vessels which have a comfortable interior. (Which FLYING CLOUD’s captains quarters certainly provided.)

    The modern boats are a bit like breaking a record set by a semi-truck full of cargo with a Porsche.

    For additional reading, folks should find “Flying Cloud: The True Story of America’s Most Famous Clipper Ship and the Woman Who Guided Her” by David Shaw. Mr. Shaw provides a wonderful account of both Skipper Cressy and Navigator Cressy.

  5. Joseph H DiMatteo 7 months ago

    I agree with Beau on both accounts. None of the modern boats that broke the Flying Cloud’s record are in any way comparable and the book by David Shaw was great. What a great movie the Creesy’s lives and their time aboard Flying Cloud would make. I have been fortunate to sail with a number of wonderful modern female navigators in Heather Lidgard from NZ, Mary Alice O’Neill, and Connie Pichel from Arizona. Connie was a dear friend who became a licensed pilots at a time when not a lot of women were. She passed away a few years ago at 94 and one of my most treasured possesions is her Freiberger Yacht sextant. Of course you can’t discuss great modern women navigators and sailors without tipping your hat to Jeanne Socrates and Lin Pardey.

  6. Bob Wilson 7 months ago

    What a great story Tim! When Thursday’s Child was about to break the record in 1989, our all male crew set sail on our boat “Bolero” from Redwood City to go meet her. She is a Clipper 36 built by Cheoy Lee. It was very foggy and we ran hard aground in Redwood Creek. The tide was falling and we were soon completely dry. We made pancakes and never made it to the gate that day. Clearly we needed a women navigator! Hats off to Eleanor!

  7. Mihael 7 months ago

    Amazing. Ladies are still outraged that they are discriminated in the maritime business.

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