A TRULY REGAL ECLIPSE!
Posted On January 1, 2000
By Joe Rao
With many thanks to Ms. Ann Burgess of NorthStar Expeditions of Atlanta, Georgia and Regal Cruise Lines, the August 11th total eclipse of the Sun was successfully observed by 670 passengers and 380 Regal crew members from on board the 23,000-ton luxury cruise ship Regal Empress. Nearly 100 of the passengers belonged to the NorthStar group, the largest of any on board. Unlike the many other eclipses that were based in Europe, however, our Regal Eclipse Cruise was to be stationed at a very unusual location, namely at the sunrise point of the totality path off of the Canadian Maritimes. Originally scheduled as a 12-day whale watching cruise through Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, it was NorthStar that brought the August 11th, 1999 eclipse to the attention of Regal and coerced them to alter their venue to include a rendezvous with the eclipse. Overall it was a wonderful cruise complete with fantastic views of whales, puffins, the Perseid meteor shower and a beautiful aurora complete with brilliant homogenous and rayed arcs (on August 16). But it was truly the sunrise eclipse that was the highlight of the cruise.
SHIP OF FOOLS?
Regal promoted their prospective August 8th-20th venture as the "Whale of an Eclipse Cruise." Most eclipse veteran chasers upon hearing of this concept branded the Regal Empress as a "ship of fools," since long-term climatology records indicated that the combination of an exceedingly low Sun angle with a region where cloud cover normally exceeded 70 percent would certainly spell doom for prospective eclipse watchers. Typical of such thinking was astronomer Guy Ottewell who noted in his 1999 Astronomical Calendar: "Between Newfoundland and Ireland the umbra may fall on an unbroken roof of cloud."
Long-time eclipse meteorologist Jay Anderson of Environment Canada suggested a slightly more optimistic viewpoint. In NASA Reference Publication 1398/Total Solar Eclipse of 1999 August 11, he noted: "Though skies have a high frequency of cloud cover, the mobility offered by a ship should be able to overcome this deficiency, to some extent, provided good weather advice is available." For our cruise on the Regal Empress that weather advice would come from two excellent sources: The National Weather Service Forecast Office at Taunton, Massachusetts and The Maritimes Weather Centre at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. When initially contacted in early July, both weather offices had indicated that they would gladly support our eclipse venture by providing updates for our eclipse-viewing zone. An arrangement had even been made with Ms. Martha McCulloch, the Officer-in-charge at Dartmouth, to visit that office on the day before the eclipse, when we were docked at nearby Halifax.
We left New York City on Sunday afternoon, August 8th, en route to Halifax. Along with myself, the other astronomy lecturers representing NorthStar were Dr. David Levy, a well-known author and comet seeker (21 books written, 21 comets discovered) and Mr. Sam Storch, Vice President of the Astronomical Society of Long Island (ASLI) and Director of Brooklyn's Edwin P. Hubble Planetarium. Among our passengers were Roy L.Bishop, Editor of the RASC's annual publication Observer's Handbook, Patsy Tombaugh, wife of the late Clyde Tombaugh, the discover of the planet Pluto, and Dr. Janet Asimov, wife of the late popularizer of science and science fiction, Dr. Isaac Asimov. Also on board were Dr. Edward M. Brooks and his wife of 58 years, Sarah. Dr. Brooks is a long-time professor of geophysics at Boston University, who father, Charles, founded the American Meteorological Society (AMS). Dr. Brooks also has a noted reputation for making accurate weather forecasts for past solar eclipses and indeed 27 years ago, on July 10th, 1972, he served as the meteorologist for the very first cruise ever attempted to view a solar eclipse. That ship in question was the T.S.S. Olympia, which Dr. Brooks successfully positioned some 900 miles due east of New York in the western Atlantic. And in an ironic twist, the Olympia - once owned by the Greek Lines -- would eventually be sold to Regal Cruise Lines and later to be christened as the Regal Empress. Thus, we were attempting to view the August 11th eclipse from the same ship that pioneered the concept of eclipse cruising!
Several passengers who were sailing with us were actually on board the Olympia for the maiden 1972 eclipse cruise. A few who spied Dr. Brooks asked if he was going to be in charge of the weather once again. "No," he would say, "I'm 82 and retired now. It's time to pass the baton to Joe Rao who I'm sure will do a fine job for us."
Talk about your pressure!
TO HALIFAX . . . AND BACK!
The NorthStar team's first meeting late that Sunday night was with Captain Peter Schaab and his crew, as well as with Mr. Larry Cross, an executive for Regal. The game plan was for us to depart Halifax on Tuesday, the 10th, one hour ahead of schedule, and head toward the path of totality roughly 200 miles offshore to the southeast. We would arrive on centerline at approximately 3 a.m. Atlantic Daylight Time on the 11th. We would then have more than three hours before totality to move either to the west and south or north and east along the eclipse path, depending on the very latest weather information. On Monday afternoon, the 9th, I placed two ship-to-shore phone calls from Larry's office to the Taunton and Dartmouth weather offices. Marine forecaster Joe Delacarpini at Taunton had just received the latest NGM model forecasts valid for eclipse morning and zeroed-in on the eclipse region where we were planned to be. Low-to-mid level moisture seemed negligible in his opinion and the only concern would seem to come from a disturbance advancing through the northeast states that might spread some high-level moisture our way. That high-level moisture might translate into some patchy thin cirrus clouds. At Dartmouth, meteorologist Glenda Sonje echoed Delacarpini's optimistic opinion that we need only worry about some high cirroform clouds. On Tuesday morning, the 10th, we arrived in Halifax and I immediately got off the ship and jumped into a taxi for the 15-minute commute to the Dartmouth weather office. There, I met with Glenda, Martha McCulloch and other staff members. I was given a short tour, and then was provided with a number of satellite photos as well as the latest versions of the NGM and Canadian computer models to take back to the ship.
With guarded optimism I began to feel real good about our chances, especially with the extra few hours built-in to make last-minute adjustments on eclipse morning. At 3:30 p.m., the Regal Empress began its departure for Halifax en route to totality.
At 4:30 p.m. we were on our way back to Halifax!
Apparently, two people were left behind and we were returning to pick them up. We didn't actually return to the dock, but sat just offshore while a pilot boat speeded toward us with the tardy passengers. Then, using a rope ladder and a crude device that looked like a body harness the two people - a man and woman - were hoisted from the pilot boat and onto our ship. As they came on board a number of passengers watching this spectacle from the ship's railing booed them. We finally were off again just after 5:30 p.m. - more than two hours behind schedule!
As you can imagine, in the wake of this episode, I was a bit of a basket case that afternoon and night. Captain Schaab kept assuring me, however, that we would make it to the totality path on time. Indeed, all through the night the ship went at full bore - 17-knots/20 m.p.h. We all felt the pitch and roll of the vessel all through the night. At midnight I again met with Captain Schaab who said our estimated time of arrival at centerline would be just before 5 a.m. I managed to get in a few hours of sleep, but was back up on the Navigation Bridge at 4:30 a.m., just as dawn was beginning to break.
The skies were mainly clear and starry, but out ahead of us loomed a problem. Two low, shallow "mounds" of stratocumulus clouds lay along the east-northeast and east horizons. Neither mound was much higher than perhaps 5 degrees of altitude - but would almost certainly be high enough to obscure the totally eclipsed Sun from our vantagepoint. However, between these two mounds there was a small "valley" of clear sky right down to the sea horizon. This is where we would have to somehow position the rising Sun. At 5 a.m. when Captain Schaab appeared, we had finally reached the centerline when I told him of our problem. My solution was now to take the ship to the southeast, which would in turn would shift the Sun toward that valley of clear sky. Captain Schaab agreed and ordered the turn to the southeast.
At 5:30 a.m., it was increasingly obvious that we were overtaking the cloud mass to the east-northeast and would essentially leave them behind. The clouds over toward the east were not moving much at all and likely were much farther away. Another course adjustment was made, this time back toward the northeast. In all, between 5 and 6 a.m. we must have "zigged" southeast about 8 to 10 miles and then "zagged" back to the northeast another 8 to 10 miles. Through all of this, a line from the NASA eclipse circular by Jay Anderson kept running through my mind:
"The very low Sun angle at the start of the eclipse will seriously impede the search for a hole in any cloud cover which might be there, but provided the excursion is not just a day trip with little time for exploration, the effort has a good chance of being rewarded."
The man sure knew what he was talking about!
Just after 6 a.m., Captain Schaab slowed the Regal Empress and turned the starboard (right) side of the ship broadside toward the soon-to-rise Sun. All engines were then shut down. Turning to me, he said, in voice which sounded very much like Arnold Schwarzenegger: "I have fiddled . . . and I have fiddled . . . and I have fiddled. And I will fiddle no more." Our position at totality was at latitude +42 degrees 15 minutes 46 seconds and longitude -61 degrees 47 minutes 59 seconds. We now sat and awaited the lunar umbra from this point in the western Atlantic Ocean, roughly 220 statute miles south-southeast of Halifax, and 520 statute miles east of Boston.
DID WE BELIEVE IN MIRACLES? . . . YES!!!
At 6:06 a.m., there appeared a "spark" of yellow-orange light on the east-northeast horizon. Within minutes a blindingly bright "lobster claw" - the fat crescent of the partially eclipsed Sun - emerged from above the horizon. During the next 24 minutes as the solar crescent rapidly narrowed I made several announcements to the passengers over the ship's P.A. system as to what to look for. About two minutes before totality, I squinted my eyes toward the Sun and briefly perceived a dazzling magnesium-white arc of light, surrounded by a deepening cobalt-blue sky. There were no clouds anywhere near the Sun. It was, in fact, one of the clearest skies that I ever had for any of my eight eclipses. I had to pinch myself . . . in my wildest dreams I could not imagine a sky so clear and transparent for an eclipse that statistics said flatly would not be seen. It was a meteorological miracle in the making!
The second-contact diamond ring was gorgeous, though not as long lasting as the one I had seen last year in the Caribbean. Within five seconds, the diamond winked out and we were finally in totality. What an amazing sight! Because of the Sun's exceedingly low altitude of ~2.3 degrees, the famous "Moon illusion" - which makes the Moon and Sun appear enormously large when close to the horizon - became a very significant factor. Indeed, here now before us was an enormously large jet-black disk, encircled by at least six or seven brilliant red "beads" (prominences) and a circular, roundish pearly corona perhaps one-half to three-quarters of a solar diameter in maximum length. I only had a few second glimpse of this breathtaking display through my 7 x 35 wide-angle binoculars. Then, upon gauging the scene again with just my eyes, I viewed a most remarkable sight. The eclipsed Sun was almost centrally positioned within what I would call a "shaft of darkness" roughly 15 to 20 degrees wide. As the seconds passed, one could see this dark shaft slowly move from right-to-left. It was the umbral shadow! We were looking at it straight up its axis but from a very oblique angle. I could easily tell when totality was going to end, for once the trailing edge of the shaft reached the Sun, it resulted in the third contact diamond ring and the end of total eclipse. I let out a loud whoop! "Should I blow the horn?" asked a ship's officer who was next to me. "Yeah! Do it!" I said. As the ship's horn echoed loudly in the morning air, passengers and crew applauded both the Moon and the Sun.
In replaying the eclipse in my mind, I kept having a nagging thought that I had actually seen it somewhere before. Then suddenly, I remembered. I quickly opened the copy of the August Sky & Telescope that I brought with me to page 118. Yes! There it is! The portrait of the June 1937 eclipse rendered by astronomical artist D.Owen Stephens. I spent much of the morning and afternoon showing the Stephens painting to a number of passengers, and agreed that it very much resembled what we had all witnessed earlier in the day.
It was all over in just 50 seconds. But it was as exciting and every bit as spectacular as my previous 857 seconds of basking in the lunar shadow.
TAKING IT TO THE LIMIT
Some days afterward I finally had a chance to sit down and gauge the specific circumstances of this event. According to NASA astronomer Fred Espenak, the moment of the external contact of the Moon's umbral shadow with Earth - that is, when the frontmost tip of the highly elongated shadow first contacted Earth at the sunrise terminator - came at 6:29:52 a.m. Atlantic Daylight Time. For the Regal Empress, totality was observed to begin at 6:30:04 a.m., or just 12 seconds after the shadow began touching the Earth's surface! Thus, through most of our shipboard view of the totally eclipsed Sun, the umbra was still "spilling onto" the Earth's surface. It managed to traverse nearly four degrees of longitude in a matter of seconds chiefly because when it initially contacted Earth it moved at infinite speed then began to gradually slow on its march across our planet. We were about as close to the sunrise limit as any ground-based observing post would dare to be yet still obtained a superb view.
Later that afternoon NorthStar participants enjoyed a celebratory cocktail party in the ship's Mermaid Lounge. We had heard from CNN and Canadian (CBC) television that much of western and central Europe did not fare well weatherwise for the eclipse. Upon hearing this a few in our party breathed a sigh of relief, revealing that they had strongly considered places like England, France or Germany before finally opting for the Regal Empress. Holding up the NASA Eclipse Circular at page 57 - "Probability of Seeing the Eclipse Along the Path" - I cited the value on the graph for where our ship was positioned: a paltry 18 percent. "I guess you can say that this was a bit of an upset so far as the weather was concerned," I said jokingly, adding: "Kind of along the lines of the victories of the '69 Mets or the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team."
It only proves what I always said prior to every eclipse I've gone to: "Climate is what you expect; but weather is what you get!"