Eleanor Creesy became an instant celebrity on Aug. 31, 1851, when the clipper ship she navigated sailed into San Francisco harbor. The Flying Cloud had sailed from New York in less than half the time the voyage usually took.
Her husband, Josiah Creesy, was captain of the great clipper, but he knew his wife was a better navigator than he was.
She was one of the greatest.
Eleanor Creesy was born in Marblehead, Mass., in September 1814, the daughter of John and Eleanor Prentiss. John Prentiss was a master mariner, and he taught his smart daughter ocean navigation. As a girl she studied weather, ocean currents and astronomy and math. She learned how to use a sextant and a chronometer.
A historian wrote that, “she found the art of fixing one’s position every day exceedingly engaging and immensely satisfying, and she often missed it after too long a stay ashore.”
In 1841, she married Josiah Creesy, a ship captain also from Marblehead. He worked for Grinnell, Minturn, the leading trans-Atlantic shipping company of the age. He was captain of the Oneida then and wishing for a faster vessel.
Eleanor accompanied him on his voyages, which wasn’t unusual. Ship captains’ wives often came along and tended to the injured men on the vessel. She also helped provision her husband’s ships, making sure they had the latest navigation charts.
Josiah Creesy got his wish when he was chosen to skipper the Flying Cloud, built by Donald McKay in his East Boston shipyard. Her figurehead was an angel blowing a trumpet. Clipper ships were built for speed, with long, sharp bows, V-shaped hulls, rounded sterns and large sail areas.
Before the Flying Cloud made its historic voyage, Eleanor Creesy studied a book by Matthew Fontaine Maury, considered the father of oceanography. Explanations and Sailing Directions to Accompany the Wind and Current Charts was viewed with some skepticism by old ship captains. It was based on exhaustive studies of the logs kept by naval and merchant ships. Maury recommended a new route around Patagonia that Eleanor Creesy decided to follow.
On her maiden voyage, the Flying Cloud carried passengers and $50,000 worth of cargo, including 500 kegs of white lead, 100 cases of imperial black paint, lamp black, 100 cans of turpentine, 190 dozen brandy peaches, 100 dozen tomato and pepper sauces and 68 boxes of candles. On June 2, 1851, she sailed out of New York Harbor.
The first time Eleanor Creesy calculated how far the Flying Cloud had traveled in a day, she thought she’d made a mistake. She couldn’t believe the ship was that fast. She checked for mistakes. The Flying Cloud was that fast.
In one day, Flying Cloud covered 389 miles, a greater distance than had ever been covered in a day, even by steamships.
Around Cape Horn
The ship ran into a storm while sailing around the dangerous Cape Horn. All fires on board were extinguished; the temperature dropped to near freezing. Josiah Creesy stood on deck in the cold wind and rain and shout below to his wife, asking for new sailing directions.
With the skies obscured, she had to use dead reckoning to figure out the ship’s position. She made an educated guess based on the last known position of the ship, add its speed and take into account the wind, waves and currents.
Hour after hour she worked through the storm to find new dead reckoning positions.
On Aug. 31, Flying Cloud sailed into San Francisco, 89 days and 21 hours after she left New York. During those early days of the Gold Rush, it could take 200 days to travel the more than 60,000 miles around the tip of South America.
Her arrival generated headlines around the world, and Eleanor and Josiah Creesy were famous. In California, the Daily Alta reported,
The Flying Cloud was built in Boston, and will stand, as long as she lasts, a monument of Yankee talent in the way of ship building. Her arrival in port yesterday morning created a considerable degree of excitement, and crowds rushed over to the North Beach to obtain a view of her.
Two sisters got married aboard the Flying Cloud a few weeks after she made her historic voyage: Ellen Lyon was already engaged to be married in California, but her sister Sarah and fellow passenger Laban Coffin fell in love during the trip. Eleanor Creesy baked Sarah’s wedding cake.
Two years later after their historic voyage, Josiah and Eleanor Creesy broke their own record by 13 hours. 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, Mass. He died in 1871; Eleanor lived to be 85, dying in August 1900.
With thanks to The American Clipper Ship, 1845-1920: A Comprehensive History, with a Listing of Builders and Their Ships by Glenn A. Kinnock. This story was updated in 2022.