Flying Cloud: The True Story of America's Most Famous Clipper Ship and the Woman Who Guided Herby David W. Shaw
Flying Cloud is the riveting and thoroughly researched tale of a truly unforgettable sea voyage during the days of the California gold rush. In 1851, navigator Eleanor Creesy set sail on the maiden voyage of the clipper ship Flying Cloud, traveling from New York to San Francisco in only 89 days. This swift passage set a world record that went/em>/em>
Flying Cloud is the riveting and thoroughly researched tale of a truly unforgettable sea voyage during the days of the California gold rush. In 1851, navigator Eleanor Creesy set sail on the maiden voyage of the clipper ship Flying Cloud, traveling from New York to San Francisco in only 89 days. This swift passage set a world record that went unbroken for more than a century. Upon arrival in San Francisco, Flying Cloud became an enduring symbol of a young nation's daring frontier spirit. Illustrated with original maps and charts as well as historical photographs, Shaw's compelling narrative captures the drama of this thrilling adventure.
In a position almost unheard of for a woman in the mid-19th century, Eleanor Creesy served as the ship's navigator. With only the sun, planets, and stars to guide her, she brought Flying Cloud safely around Cape Horn at the height of a winter blizzard, faced storms, dodged shoals, and found her way through calms to make the swift passage possible. Along with her husband, Josiah, the ship's captain, she sailed the mighty 3-masted clipper through 16,000 miles of the fiercest, most unpredictable oceans in the world.
Shaw vividly recreates 19th-century seafaring conditions and customs, for both the crew and the passengers who entrusted their fate to an untested ship. Including excerpts from letters and diaries of passengers, Shaw recounts Flying Cloud's victory in the face of adversity—including sabotage, insubordination, and severe damage to the clipper's mainmast that might have sunk her with all hands lost. But the ship triumphed and would ultimately sail the world. Flying Cloud brings to life, for the first time, the glory of one of America's most important seafaring tales and one woman's incredible achievements.
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Read an Excerpt
The surf broke steadily on the east side of Sandy Hook, carrying sinewy lines of foam and bits of kelp up the hard-packed beach toward the high-water mark. The breakers established a natural rhythm far older than the barrier of outstretched sand crooked four miles northwestward into the bay off the Highlands of Navesink. A moderate southerly wind whispered through the tall dry grass on the dunes and jostled the branches of the short, scrubby stands of cedar and holly along the spine of the peninsula, clearly visible from the heights above.
Seen from the summit of the Highlands at the approaches to New York Harbor, the vast reaches of Raritan Bay stretched out to the north to embrace the edge of Staten Island and Long Island's southern shore. The sails of coastal schooners, bluff-bowed merchantmen, and lean, narrow packets splashed patterns of white against the water. Oceangoing steamers and diminutive local ferries darted among the sailing vessels working down toward Sandy Hook or running free with the wind astern toward the Verrazano Narrows.
Atop a semaphore tower commanding an unlimited view of the sea, an observer scanned the horizon for the first appearance of sails nudged above the expanse of deep blue ocean to the east. The color of the sea struck him as distinct, its crisp clarity juxtaposed against the sky. The mid-March sun did little to dispel the cold, nor did the occasional puff of warmth from the wind as it passed over the farmlands of Monmouth County and crested the purple hills of the Highlands. The observer lifted the spyglass once more in a habit second nature to him after thousands of repetitions over hundreds ofdays, most of them routine and some of them dull.
Still, there were worse positions at the factories and railroads, on the docks and on the farms, than spending days, weeks, months, and years spotting the fortunes on the wind bound for the piers along the East River. As soon as he identified an inbound ship, he worked his enormous signal flags to convey news of the new arrival to the semaphore station on Staten Island, and his colleague there relayed the signal to the observers on the Battery. Once the information was received, it was run to the owner or agent in lower Manhattan, who started making arrangements to off-load the cargo well before the vessel nosed through the slot of the Narrows. Ships were off-loaded and loaded as quickly as possible. Fortunes accumulated with vessels at sea, holds packed tight with valuable commodities bound for a hungry market, not when they were moored to a wharf. Each arrival was anxiously awaited, and the ships that made fast passages became the toast of the town.
The docks of New York City teemed with transatlantic liners, ships in the East India and China trade, and, most recently, new clippers built for the California run. Every captain worth his commission drove his ship hard, and every fast passage set the stage for a faster one to follow. It was not uncommon in early 1851 to see several swift sailers race into port together, a sight that made the most lubberly dandy wax poetic. From his vantage point in the tower the observer witnessed the romantic side of the harbor's works, and even after long, cold watches the special moments retained their ability to entrance.
Earlier that day the observer watched as the brand-new clipper ship Alert slowed momentarily, her main topsail backed to act as a brake, and discharged the pilot. Alert was 152 feet in length with lofty spars and acres of canvas spread out on massive yards and slender booms. She was the first clipper built in Maine, which wisely followed shipyards in key shipbuilding centers from Portsmouth to Baltimore already aggressively in the clipper business. At 764 tons, Alert was not overly large, but her owners thought it probable her maiden passage to San Francisco might earn profits enough to fully recoup the construction costs. It was not an unrealistic hope. The pilot safely back to his schooner, Alert braced her yards around to catch the wind and made her way south-southeast out to sea, headed for the Golden Gate.
In 1849, the year the gold rush started in earnest, only a few dozen clipper ships existed, and most of them were engaged in the East India and China trade. The slow, full-bodied merchant ships built to haul bulky cargoes and even the finer built, much sleeker packets designed more for speed averaged two hundred days from New York to San Francisco that year. The following year, more clippers took up the gold rush route, and while most ships required well over a hundred days to make the passage, several set records, each of which was soon broken.
Sea Witch, an early clipper ship, under command of Robert Waterman, made the voyage in ninety-seven days in 1850, and Surprise, which set sail on December 13, 1850, was at that very moment three days out of San Francisco and about to raise the bar for the record another notch. When word reached New York that Surprise had beaten Sea Witch's time, arriving in port after a passage of ninety-six days, fifteen hours, the race for speed further intensified in the shipping business and fueled demand for ships of even greater swiftness and size. Major shipbuilders, primarily in New York and Boston, tooled up for what many perceived would be America's biggest shipping boom. Since the new year, nine clippers, including Alert, had left New York Harbor bound for San Francisco.
On the horizon, a patch of white caught the observer's practiced eye. It could have been a cloud or a trick of the light. He trained his spyglass on the speck, steadied his hand, and squinted. The skysails of a merchant ship gradually took shape, and as time passed each succeeding tier of sails lower down also materialized, as if the earth were forcing the vessel straight up from the ocean depths, until finally the black hull appeared...
Meet the Author
David W. Shaw is the author of Daring the Sea and Inland Passage. An expert sailor in his own right, Shaw also writes for Offshore magazine, Sail, Cruising World, and Lakeland Boating. He lives in New Jersey and sails in Maine.
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