India House Foundation


Stephen D. Perkins

FLYING CLOUD and The First Female Navigator, my ancestor Eleanor Creesy" 1854

India House Foundation

10 October 2007


The Flying Cloud was a remarkable ship – and she had a remarkable combination of Captain and Navigator who also happened to be husband and wife. They were married in Marblehead, June 3 1841 and sailed together until they retired.

Josiah Perkins Creesy and Eleanor Prentiss Creesy were not unusual in going to sea together. What was unusual was that Eleanor, or Ellen as she was called, was the ship’s Navigator – a skill she had learned sailing on her father’s coastal trading schooner out of Marblehead as a young girl with an interest in mathematics.

Perkins, as he was called, was a seasoned, reliable Captain who was well known to the Grinnell & Minturn firm due to his success with their ship The Oneida in The China Trade. The Oneida made 5 swift voyages in under 90 days from New York to Anjier prior to the building of The Flying Cloud. He knew several of the new shareholders of The Flying Cloud and he lobbied hard to be named Master. (In the end he and Ellen held 2/32 of the shares in The Flying Cloud.) The owners hired Perkins and they were most certainly aware that they would get a bonus with Ellen. She was not only an accomplished sailor and navigator but also a student of navigation. She had been studying and observing oceanic currents, weather phenomena and astronomy since her girlhood in Marblehead. She was one of the first navigators to take advantage of the observations of Mathew Fontaine Maury and his published studies “Wind and Current Charts and Sailing Directions”.

Maury was a Lieutenant in the US Navy who suffered an injury which kept him from going to sea. He became head of what became the US Naval Observatory around 1840. At the Observatory he discovered many old log books deposited there which recorded currents and weather conditions around the world from merchant ships, whalers and the Navy. He also instituted his own system of collecting meteorological data from ships. He consolidated this information to give suggested sailing directions by time of year and area. They were called “track charts” two of which were “Trade Wind Charts” and “Storm and Rain Charts”.

Eleanor Creesy had studied all of Maury’s publications, received his updates and used this information to full advantage. She was “high tech” for her time.

These were exciting times for other reasons too: The schooner America and The New York Yacht Club were challenging the British off the Isle of Wight, The Collins steamship liner Pacific was the first vessel to make a run to Liverpool in less than 10 days and the day after the Flying Cloud completed her maiden voyage to San Francisco the first train traveled from New York City to Albany over the new Hudson River Railroad in 5 hours – 2 hours faster than the river steamboats had ever covered the same distance.

The Flying Cloud weighed anchor on the afternoon of June 2, 1851 – a Monday - as Sundays and Mondays were considered auspicious sailing days – she dropped her Pilot off at Sandy Hook at 7:00 PM and 89 days and 21 hours later she crossed the “line” at the Golden Gate shattering the existing record. It must be noted that the usual time for this passage – a distance of more than 15,000 miles - was around 180 days. After Maury’s publications the time dropped to around 135 days for fast ships but the Flying Cloud’s passage set a new standard for the transit time for goods and passengers to San Francisco.

The Flying Cloud did not have an uneventful passage. She was nearly dismasted in the Atlantic 3 days out of New York. She lost her main topgallant mast and mizzen topgallant pole. This mast problem continued throughout the passage and her main mast had to be “nursed” along on many occasions. After another severe storm and rigging problem off Brasil two of her seamen drilled holes in her hull in the hope that Perkins would put into Rio for repairs. They were discovered, the damage repaired and the voyage continued. The last 10 days to Cape Horn were sailed in heavily overcast conditions and Eleanor was unable to take a sun sight the whole time. Her navigation reverted to “dead reckoning” for more than 1,000 miles and yet, when the sun finally came out, the Flying Cloud was exactly 8 miles off Cape Horn and this was exactly where Eleanor said they would be. Obviously her years of sailing had honed her dead reckoning skills when she could not use her celestial navigation skills!

Of note is that they did the 50 – 50 in only 7 days. That is they traveled from 50 degrees south latitude in the South Atlantic to 50 degrees south latitude in the South Pacific. (from just north of The Falklands to just south of Puerto Montt in Chile) This record, I believe, still stands.

They had a pretty easy rounding of the Horn (interesting to note that this was the first time Ellen and Perkins had ever rounded the Horn – they had sailed the China Trade before) and the trip up the Southern coast of Latin America was relatively easy for a while – allowing Perkins to carry as much sail as the problem main mast would allow. On July 31, 1851 they set a single day’s record of 374 miles covered in 24 hours. At one point The Flying Cloud was sailing at a speed greater than 18 knots – or 22 miles an hour. Ellen and Perkins recorded this with obvious pleasure in the ship’s log that day.

Again, however, they ran into a period of squalls and storms and lost the main top gallant once more and there were days where Eleanor could not take any sun sights and they had to rely on her dead reckoning skills and ability to interpret information from Maury’s Track Charts. This was vital because the section of the Pacific between the coast of Northern Peru and Central America is notorious for light winds and strong, variable currents but Eleanor got The Flying Cloud through this difficult sailing area by reviewing Maury’s sailing directions and standing further out to sea than most ships did at this point in the passage North to San Francisco.

The Flying Cloud had 3 days of light air as she approached the Golden Gate but when she finally neared land she passed a British ship, the Amelia Pacquet, out from London for some 180 days. When the Captain of the Amelia Pacquet found out that The Flying Cloud was only 88 days out from New York he and his passengers lined the rail and applauded!

The Flying Cloud carried a shipment of mining equipment and supplies, fancy household goods, gourmet foodstuffs (loaded at the last minute) and bales of cotton duck along with 12 passengers most of whom were going out to the Gold Fields for business or joining up with family already there (one family stayed on all the way to Canton). They and the merchants receiving the goods carried were appreciative of the speed with which they got to San Francisco. (As were the buyers of the foodstuffs – some of it butter.)

After unloading her cargo (and there was some water damage thanks to the sabotage attempt along with the usual damage from shifting in the hold) The Flying Cloud was ballasted and set sail for Canton (no record on this passage). Three years later in 1854 Eleanor and Perkins broke their previous New York - San Francisco record by 13 hours… and this record stood until a high tech sloop named Thursday’s Child broke it by 9 days and 1 hour in 1989. Of course Thursday’s Child was equipped with SAT NAV, a Weatherfax, SSB Radio and a team of weather routing personnel on shore.

The Creesy’s sailed together on The Flying Cloud for 4 years and then took a break in 1855 to Marblehead after taking The Flying Cloud from Canton (Guangzhou), Macao and Anjier Point back to New York.

In 1857 Ellen and Perkins were asked to bring The Flying Cloud back home from San Francisco to New York. They did it in 91 days!!! They hadn’t lost their touch.

Perks 1814-1871 Ellen 1815 – 1900 married at 27 & 26. Both buried in Salem, MA. He was a State Legislator, active in Salem politics which is where they went for their 2nd retirement. Grandson of Rev William Perkins & Elizabeth Wooton, Topsfield, MA. Suspect that Creesy’s mother wanted to keep the name Perkins alive. Not much known about Eleanor’s family – she died in 1900 in New Hampshire. Finally retired for the second time as a team in 1864. Perkins was Captain of the Ino in the Civil War