Flying Cloud was a clipper ship that set the world's sailing record
for the fastest passage between New York and San Francisco, 89 days
8 hours. She held this record for over 100 years, from 1854-1989.
Flying Cloud was the most famous of the clippers built by Donald
McKay. She was known for her extremely close race with the Hornet in
1853; for having a woman navigator, Eleanor Creesy, wife of Josiah
Perkins Creesy who skippered the Flying Cloud on two record-setting
voyages from New York to San Francisco; and for sailing in the
Australia and timber trades.
Flying Cloud is popularly called an extreme clipper, as are many of
Donald McKay's ships, but as her dead rise was less than 40" she was
not. Donald McKay built many fast clipper ships but only one, the
Stag Hound was an extreme clipper, even if others may have been
advertised as such. It was popular to advertise clippers as
"extreme" because of the popular conception of speed.
Flying Cloud was built in East Boston, Massachusetts, and intended
for Enoch Train of Boston, who paid $50,000 for her construction.
While still under construction, she was purchased by Grinnell,
Minturn & Co., of New York, for $90,000, which represented a huge
profit for Train & Co.
A reporter for the Boston Daily Atlas of 25 April 1851 wrote, "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. Her length on
the keel is 208 feet, on deck 225, and over all, from the
knightheads to the taffrail, 235— extreme breadth of beam 41 feet,
depth of hold 21½, including 7 feet 8 inches height of
between-decks, sea-rise at half floor 20 inches, rounding of sides 6
inches, and sheer about 3 feet.
World record voyage to San Francisco during Gold Rush
Within six weeks of launch Flying Cloud sailed from New York and
made San Francisco 'round Cape Horn in 89 days, 21 hours under the
command of Captain Josiah Perkins Creesy. On 31 July, during the
trip, she made 374 miles in 3 days. In 1853 she beat her own record
by 13 hours, a record that stood until 1989 when the
breakthrough-designed sailboat Thursday's Child completed the
passage in 80 days, 20 hours. The record was once again broken in
2008 by the French racing yacht Gitana 13, with a time of 43 days
and 38 minutes.
In the early days of the California Gold Rush, it took more than 200
days for a ship to travel from New York to San Francisco, a voyage
of more than 16,000 miles. The Flying Cloud's better-than-halving
that time (only 89 days) was a headline-grabbing world record that
the ship itself beat three years later, setting a record that lasted
for 136 years.
Flying Cloud vs. Andrew Jackson
In newspaper accounts of the day, the clipper Andrew Jackson was
acclaimed as holding the record passage to San Francisco. After
careful scrutiny of the logbooks, Cutler concludes that a case can
be made for either Flying Cloud or Andrew Jackson holding the
Andrew Jackson holds the record for fastest passage pilot-to-pilot,
arriving at the San Francisco pilot grounds in 89 days and 4 hours.
Because Andrew Jackson spent all night between the Farrallones and
the Golden Gate awaiting a harbor pilot, some will consider this
figure as the appropriate indicator of fastest sailing performance
around Cape Horn.
However, the Flying Cloud holds the record time for a completed
voyage from New York to San Francisco, 89 days 8 hours
The Flying Cloud's achievement was remarkable under any terms. But,
writes David W. Shaw, it was all the more unusual because its
navigator was a woman, Eleanor Creesy, who had been studying oceanic
currents, weather phenomena, and astronomy since her girlhood in
Marblehead, Massachusetts. She was one of the first navigators to
exploit the insights of Matthew Fontaine Maury, most notably the
course recommended in his Sailing Directions. With her husband, ship
captain Josiah Perkins Cressy, she logged many thousands of miles on
the ocean, traveling around the world carrying passengers and goods.
In the wake of their record-setting transit from New York to
California, Eleanor and Josiah became instant celebrities. But their
fame was short-lived and their story quickly forgotten. Josiah died
in 1871 and Eleanor lived far from the sea until her death in 1900.
Race with clipper Hornet in 1853
Hornet had a two day head start on the Flying Cloud in their famous
1853 race. She left New York for San Francisco, 26 April 1853, with
the Flying Cloud departing two days later.
After the roughly 15,000 mile voyage around Cape Horn, both ships
arrived in San Francisco harbor 106 days later at almost the same
time, with Hornet sailing in just 45 minutes ahead of the Flying
British clipper to Australia and New Zealand, New Brunswick
In 1862, Flying Cloud was sold to the Black Ball Line, Liverpool,
sailing under British colors without change of name, and was soon
traveling between the mother country and Australia and New Zealand.
Her latter years were spent in the log trade between Newcastle upon
Tyne, England, and Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada.
Loss of the ship
On 19 June 1874 the Flying Cloud went ashore on the Beacon Island
bar, Saint John, New Brunswick, and was condemned and sold. The
following June she was burned for the scrap metal value of her
copper and iron fastenings.
A well-known ballad about a ship named Flying Cloud tells the story
of an Irishman who was pressed into sailing on the ship on a slaving
voyage from Baltimore via Bermuda to West Africa, which led to
another voyage as a pirate ship that resulted in the execution of
the crew at Newgate. However, these events are nothing to do with
the actual history of the clipper ship.
Novels and books
- Lyon, Margaret; Reynolds, Flora Elizabeth (1992). The Flying
Cloud, and her first passengers. Oakland, California: Mills College.
- Shaw, David W. (2000). Flying Cloud: the true story of America's
most famous clipper ship and the woman who guided her (1st ed.). New
York: William Morrow. ISBN 0-688-16793-4.
- Sperry, Armstrong (2007). All Sail Set: A Romance of the Flying
Cloud. Paw Prints. ISBN 978-1-4352-0042-5.