Monday, July 12, 2010

Total Solar Eclipse

“You’re doing what?” asked Chris of Stray Kitty, a catamaran cruising with three kids while we were together in the Galapagos talking about our navigation plan. “Sailing out of your way, just to view an eclipse?”

“So the sky gets dark and stars come out during an eclipse, that happens every night, what’s the big deal?” piped in Joanie of Pickles, sailing with 4 kids.

“Make sure not to blink,” advises Guy from Pickles.

“I’ve seen one and thought it was no big deal.” adds Ruth. I thought I’d get a little more support on this plan from my own wife, but she agreed to go along with it, saying sailing 60 miles out of our way would be my birthday present.

Solar eclipses occur nearly every year or two, but they’re not always total, meaning the sun gets entirely blocked from view by the moon and you can only see this natural wonder from a strip about 100 miles wide. This one happens to be passing across the South Pacific a mere 30 miles south of Tahiti and directly over some of the Tuamotus and Easter Island.

From the moment I heard about this eclipse, nearly one year ago, I’ve been planning our sailing itinerary around being in the right place to view the eclipse. I considered Easter Island, but July is not the right month to be sailing there. I considered Hao, an atoll in the Tuamotus, but it was more than one hundred miles out of our way. So we chose to see the eclipse by sailing south of Tahiti in the middle of the night. We needed to leave by 1 am or 2 am, to make it in time by 8:30 am when totality begins.

The trouble was we had already sailed downwind of Tahiti to Moorea and this meant that we had to sail back upwind to Tahiti the day before, July 10th. We began our eclipse journey with 25 knots of wind gusting to 30, typical San Francisco Bay sailing, so Ruth’s Dad, Poppa Nate, was right at home. Our first 15 mile leg to Tahiti, was not turning into a pleasant sail. The seas were big and slowed us down quite a bit as they crashed over our bow.

When we finally got back to Tahiti, we considered the prospect of doing this again at 2 am, but trying to cover 30 miles this time.

“Maybe we can find a big cruise ship heading out to view the eclipse,” suggests Ruth, voicing some of my own doubts about putting the family through this ordeal.

I recall Kim from Victoria echoing most cruisers view, “We’ll just watch it from Tahiti and see 94% of the eclipse, we’ll miss the 2-3 minutes of totality, so what”

I wanted to tell her that she was going to miss everything. Those few minutes of totality are the best part of the eclipse. To me, she was opting to eat a wish sandwich…two slices of bread and you wish you had something to put between it. She was opting for a cone without ice cream, a swimming pool without water, or a bird without wings.

I’ve never seen a total eclipse and I know I’ll never forgive myself if we’re this close and don’t make the extra effort. The kids are keen and supportive and Myra and Nate are still eager despite a little mal de mer.

I found a slot in the reef where we could anchor for the evening and be protected from the rough seas. We leave a bit early at 11 pm after just a few hours sleep. Ruth’s up because she’s nervous about where we’re anchored, and I’m awake because I’m anticipating the big event.

This night the weather gods seem to be smiling on us and we’re sailing along with a very comfortable 15 knots of wind right on course for the eclipse zone. The night is clear, the stars are shining brightly and we even see many shooting stars. It’s a magical night of sailing. We take turns getting a bit of sleep and arrive at the eclipse zone about first light.

Unfortunately with first light comes a few scattered clouds. I think of the story told by Guy of Pickles and the French team who wanted to record the transit of Venus from India in 1769 just like Captain Cook did from Tahiti. They met delays in sailing to India and arrived too late. But they knew another transit would occur 7 years later and just decided to prepare and wait. Seven years later under cloudy skies they still had no view of the transit and upon returning to France in disgrace their families had given them up for lost, even taking other spouses.

At 7:26 am Maya tries on her special solar eclipse goggles that I ordered almost one year ago and says, “A little bite has been taken out of the sun.”

“Are you sure it’s not a cloud?” I ask.

“No, it’s a bite and it’s getting bigger,” she says.

“Wake everyone up!” I shout as I see the same bite through our special viewing glasses.

Soon we’re all out on deck watching the bite grow bigger and bigger over the next hour. The sun gets dimmer and dimmer and smaller and smaller. People viewing the eclipse from Tahiti also see this natural phenomenon. But it’s the next part that is supposed to be even more interesting.

The clouds come and go. I’m worried that they will cover the sun during our precious two minutes of totality? Will we be able to see anything? The crescent of visible sun gets smaller and smaller. About 8:30, the clouds move out as if swept aside by some mystic hand just in time as the sun is blocked completely by the moon.

“I can’t see anything with my glasses” says Maya.

“This is memorable,” says Poppa Nate.

We remove our glasses and witness the fabulous diamond ring effect. There’s a jet black circle in the sky where the sun used to be. This circle is surrounded by a spectacular ring of fire, with one very bright spot where the last glimpse of sun is peeking through. It looks like a flaming diamond ring in the sky. This beautiful ring is temporary. We catch a fleeting glimpse as the sky goes dark. All that’s left is the black circle of the moon with its ring of fire. It’s not quite like night time as there’s still some blue in the sky, but we’re able to see several stars and planets, including Jupiter and Alpha and Beta Centauri near the Southern Cross. The sun has become a black circle with an awesome ring around it. Sunspots shoot jets of fire out the side of the moon. It’s a magnificent sight. Even Ruth is glad that we made it all this way.

This too is quite temporary. We look at the moon shaded sun and sky for a couple of minutes watching solar flares flash brilliantly out from the moon. Then we get another diamond, this time on the other side of the moon as the sun peeks its bright face out again. The whole thing happens again in reverse. With the first splash of bright light we put on our glasses and watch the crescent sun slowly grow back over the next hour into its full warm usual self.

We set sail back for Tahiti-iti while watching the sun grow and all of us are inspired by the alignment of the sun and the moon and the earth.


Ramona said...

Wow! I almost feel like I was there, Tim. Thanks for the story. Great picture of the eclipse. I heard on NPR that an entrepreneur was taking passengers ($6,000./head) on a flight through the eclipse-viewing zone so they could prolong the experience. You worked hard for the experience. Congrats to you all! MMM

Ethan said...

Wish I had been there. Reminds me of when I was sworn in the first time, standing next to a very large man. Poppanate couldn't really see and said: "Oh no, a total eclipse of my son!"
We miss you all and wish we were there.

Anonymous said...

Ahoy Kamaya! Well done...going for it & crossing the eclipse off your bucket list. Thx for sharing. I always enjoy checking in and learning of your latest sailing adventures.
San Francisco, CA

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