Follow this link to hear my very excited and hopeful (and in retrospect, sad) RNZ interview with First Up host Lydia Batham, recorded at sea on the M/S Paul Gauguin after leaving Pitcairn Island.
Wednesday, July 3, 2019. The pall aboard the PG created by the totality shutout exacerbated the already low spirits from the ongoing bad weather at sea and the Pitcairn fail. Disgruntlement circulated among actual professional astronomers and hardcore umbraphiles on the guest list, and they fomented unrest to whomever would listen around the pool and in the buffet lines. (These are the same individuals that found fault with niggling details in the science lectures and had actual conflicting opinions that they loudly voiced about Fillipenko’s dark matter statistics.) There was a way, they claim, to have seen totality, but I think their Monday morning quarterback plans would have compromised the itinerary and put the remaining island destinations at risk.
The rest of us got over it quickly; as we have learned from Jimmy Buffet, there’s nothing like booze in the blender to help you forget. (As one practical individual observed, pina colada in hand: “The casino on these eclipse cruises is usually poorly attended. Because this whole thing is gamble enough.”) In retrospect, of course I would have liked to witness my eighth total solar eclipse, but the experience was priceless. The emotional highs and lows ranged from elation (“we’re heading to clear skies, it’s a sure thing!”) to the sickening realization that the eclipse we paid thousands of dollars to see would not be seen. It wasn’t for the lack of trying, though—see the photo below of the Paul Gauguin’s Spirograph-like path in search of clear skies.
We returned to life at sea as we sailed back to the Society Islands—touring the galley and bridge, playing trivia in the piano bar, solving the jigsaw puzzle. I spent time in my stateroom, drawing—the shelf below my porthole windows became a mini studio. Independence Day came and went without undue observation, partly because the planned ice cream social was cancelled due to rain, but mostly because the staff dropped the ice cream on the deck because the ship was pitching in the rough sea. This was not a trip for those prone to motion sickness.
I shifted my expectations to the sun and sand and snorkeling that would hopefully come soon.
The morning dawned beautifully over the Paul Gauguin, with a blue sky and a bright yellow sun burning through the large holes in non-threatening puffy clouds.
By 7am most had staked out their viewing site, and were excited and optimistic. Nearly three minutes of totality were in store. I chose to view from the bar, La Pallette on deck 8, where mimosas were being served and there were tables outside where I could make my astronomical drawings after first contact.
Others, wrapped in blankets, settled in chairs on both sides of deck 8. Deck 9 and the foredeck of 8 were roped off for users of sensitive cameras and telescopes. It was windy and the sea pitched the ship a bit, creating a real rodeo for the ‘scope folks on the upper decks.
First Contact was at 9am. (Isn’t it a relief to see that tiny bite, precisely on schedule? “We’ve got the right day!” says someone, always, every single time.)
But quickly, within the hour, passengers and organizers were in despair. More clouds formed, and they grew thicker by the minute. They seemed to converge upon the ship from every direction, as if by evil design.
Feinberg continued his dignified phenomenon announcements (“this is when you should be able to see shadowbands”, etc.) from his position on the bridge with the captain. Both furiously calculated possibilities, and the Paul Gauguin was turned and turned and repositioned again and again and again to try to find a hole in the dark grey clouds, to no avail. We were skunked.
“Second contact,” Feinberg announced solemnly at 10:10am, to 300 shocked and silent eclipse chasers.
I scratched a couple of “totality” sketches, gathered my colored pencils, and trudged back to my stateroom. I snapped a couple of pictures of people on the way who were laughing at the fail—what else could you do? I didn’t wait around for third contact, or fourth, and avoided the group photo and eye contact with the trip organizers for awhile. I felt sad for them, but worse for the virgins.
Later, the “how was it for you?” debriefing presentation, which is traditionally a celebration, was like a wake. It felt good to just to be together. Captain Toni, who seemed shook up, was brought to the front to receive a standing ovation. It was a buoyant, healing moment for all.
It was time to look ahead to the rest of the cruise, and there was one consolation: the South Pacific singalong took place that afternoon, and I sat next to a musical theater guy who could sing the low note of “Nothing Like a Dame”.
Eclipse day morning—looking promising
First contact—spirits are high
We love you Captain Toni—thanks for playing our game
Sunday, June 30. At last, Pitcairn Island—but crashing breakers prevented the Paul Gauguin from reaching shore and, for some reason, pickup by Pitcairner longboats wasn’t an option either. All were disappointed, and the younger, able-bodied cruise guests (who could have managed the descent into the longboats via treacherous rope ladder), were especially frustrated.
The Pitcairners (if you’re not sure what this means, read this) boarded the Paul Gauguin with their wares for sale, and I was delighted to purchase some unique gifts for friends back home, a pretty wood dish made by Randy Christian (Fletcher Christian’s great-great-great-great-great-grandson), and several first day covers. Commemorative Pitcairn stamps were what I was anxious to find onshore anyway. Pitcairn Island was slated for an 80% partial eclipse, so while they were aboard I gifted a few dozen leftover Blackout Rally shades to the islanders and their children.
Since the onshore Pitcairn experience failed, the captain announced that we would pull up the anchor and make for the eclipse site early. New coordinates just beyond the edge of a thick cloud band were charted by Feinberg and Jay Andersen, the popular eclipse meteorologist who was stationed safely on land somewhere sunny in Chile.
A last minute weather update the day before the eclipse was delivered to the anxious chasers packed into the Grand Salon. Details about viewing were announced (the pool will be drained, the bar will be open, etc.) and questions were answered. It’s looking good for eclipse day, and spirits were high. I overheard more than one passenger proclaim, “seeing the eclipse will make up for not getting to Pitcairn.”
(Captain Toni made daily shipwide intercom announcements that rattled everyone’s nerves as we got closer to eclipse day. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he would begin, slowly and formally, in his Croation accent. “I have some information. Some information that will be of very much interest to you.” Long pause. “As you know, we are doing our best to find the best possible eclipse viewing position for you.” Oh no, what the fuck NOW we think collectively, and all souls aboard freeze, hanging on his every word. “We are cruising at eighteen knots away from our position,” he continues. “At twenty seven degrees south latitude to longitude one hundred thirty degrees to arrive five hundred seventy nautical miles from latitude minus fifteen…” and so forth. After two minutes of this level of out-of-context technical information, he concludes. “And so we are hoping for good outcome. And good day.”)
I made my eclipse phenomena “shot list”—see photo—including an essential tip from Filippenko: “make sure you go to the bathroom.” Others ready their custom solar viewers.
Somehow I was contacted via Twitter by a producer for New Zealand Public Radio; asking if I would submit to an interview for their First Up morning show about our ship and the nutty eclipse chasing passengers, all steaming for somewhere in the middle of the sea to witness three minutes of totality. How hopeful and confident I sound in this interview. I was still convinced that my eighth TSE would be a slam dunk.
Approaching Pitcairn Island
Pitcairners come aboard
Eclipse update: New coordinates, a hopeful weather map
Fashioning custom solar filters
A smashing sunset after navigating around the backside of Pitcairn, and sailing onward to the eclipse
Prepping again for the next TSE! The welders glasses I’ve used for the partial phases since The Big One (Baja, 1991) are scratched, worn, and a little broken, but they’ll block blinding Sol’s rays one more time with a little duct tape patch on the seam. I hope.
I’m currently overpacking (example: three bathing suits) for the South Pacific “Cruise to Totality”, a TravelQuest tour aboard the MS Paul Gauguin that will sail from Tahiti on June 27. Her passengers will witness 3 minutes and 16 seconds of totality at sea on July 2, 2019, somewhere between Pitcairn Island and Rangiroa. Clear skies are expected, and I’ll have my eighth total solar eclipse in the can.
I’m almost more excited about the add-on excursion to Easter Island (Rapa Nui), a destination I’ve always wanted to see for myself. Something about those massive Moai heads are calling—so much so that I made an effort during a road trip to the Midwest this month to find and take a selfie with the “Moai Dude” sculpture. He stands in a suburban playground in Altoona, Iowa. Can’t wait to meet a real one…next week!
300-plus Airstream trailer enthusiasts—many members of the Oregon Airstream Club, Greater Los Angeles and NorCal units of the Wally Byam Airstream Club—camped together at Lake Simtustus in Madras, Oregon to await the Great American Eclipse. To kill time before totality, a 3-day party was planned that included an eclipse presentation and evening telescope starparties with astronomer Brian Bellis from California, a drawing class, a geology lecture, catered meals each day, Cachaça spirit tasting at happy hour, live entertainment (Antsy McClain from Nashville!), and a “Day on the Dock” party hosted by Airstream Adventures Northwest (Airstream Inc.’s #1 dealer).
Day on the Dock included a fishing derby, water toy relay race (involving a hydrobike, kayaks, and an SUP), incredible prizes, a big ol’ freezer of free ice cream, and a “Hot dogs for Hot Shots” fundraiser for local firefighters who have been working overtime this season to prepare for the eclipse in Central Oregon. (The Oregon Airstream Club raised well over $2000!)
On Monday August 21 all eyes were on the sky as we gathered together to await totality, wearing our custom eclipse glasses. Several rocked tin-foil hats.
At dawn on eclipse day I glared at the thin haze in the sky, and the brownish accumulation wafting from a wildfire on Warm Springs reservation toward our viewing location. “I’m not a fan,” said astronomer Bellis, and the eclipse chasers and telescope buffs agreed that the advertised crystal blue sky of Central Oregon was not to be that day—but visibility was improving with each passing hour and everyone remained hopeful and excited.
Several telescopes were positioned to study the significant sun spot activity and the big prominences. Bellis brought a terrific “funnel projector” and an attendee made a nice pinhole headbox. Lots of folks brought colanders from their Airstream galleys to observe rows of neat and orderly crescent projections. After planning this event for seven years, it was finally going down.
The phenomena occurred on cue as 10:19 a.m. approached: sharpened shadows, eerie changes in the light, and even shadowbands—my first viewing ever, collected on a big piece of white foam core.
What a thrill and blessing to hear the gasps and cheers of 350 people when totally slid into place after a dazzling diamond ring. (Post-eclipse regret: why didn’t I make an audio recording? Hopefully someone else did.)
Something amazing WAS captured on video and in a still shot by one of the guests: during totality, a skydiver sailed right across the eclipsed sun. I hope that guy makes some good money selling the image to Astronomy magazine.
The coronal streamers were only slightly diminished by the haze, and at third contact the crowd cheered again and many brushed away a tear or two. I held it together until someone crying ran up to give me a hug. Sharing the beauty of our planet with other Earthlings and feeling our place in the solar system and the universe together always touches me deeply, and I try to carry that feeling forward until it refreshes during the next eclipse. (2019, ya’ll.)
After totality we enjoyed a catered brunch and a champagne toast delivered by special guest Thomas D. Jones, NASA astronaut/spacewalker. He delivered a fascinating presentation about the ongoing role of NASA missions, answered questions about what it’s like to live and work in space, and stuck around to autograph books and inspire kids.
Until next time, clear skies!
Above: The Oregon Airstreamers
Below: Pin the moon on the sun; eclipse style statement; eclipse cookies; ‘scope action; awaiting totality; third contact smiles; NASA astronaut Tom Jones; I’m seven for seven! (Hubs is two for two.)
“Hey, you guys, we should have a big rally during the total eclipse of the sun that’s coming up!” I said.
“Awesome idea. When is it?”
Down, girl, was the initial (and reasonable) reaction but when I brought it up again later it really was time to plan, and almost past time; many campsites and blocks of hotels in Central Oregon were already booked.
A team of co-hosts and rally volunteers stepped up to help organize the event, and we secured two campgrounds in a prime viewing location in Madras, Oregon.
I know what you’re thinking—sorry, the Oregon Airstream Blackout Rally has been sold out for nearly two years.
I never thought August 2017 would arrive, but here we are, and the Blackout Rally will be nothing short of epic: a weekend for 300 Airstreamers and their friends and families, packed with live entertainment, catered food, science presentations, star parties, a marina bash—and totality on the final day.
We just have to get there (and hope the dire traffic predictions are Fake News), and cross our fingers and toes for clear skies.
NASA and the Science Channel are placing their bets on Madras, as well: the location has a 95 to 98% chance of unobstructed viewing on August 21, and Accuweather is predicting 83° with “abundant sunshine”.
Review a collection of top eclipse articles and web posts on Tumblr at Second Contact.
Above: Madras, Oregon: “Top ranked viewing spot in the United States.”
Below: Early planners review eclipse data; co-host plots the Airstream trailer sites; host huddle in the marina store; lakeside campsites; marina dock; Airstreamers on site last summer; Oregon eclipse path; lovely lake locale; grill guy tests eclipse glasses; sorry, sold out!