By Joe Rao
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
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
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
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
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? . . .
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
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!"