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Adventure on the high seas.

Sun, Moon, clouds, and ship

Race to meet with destiny;

A circle is lit.

--David Levy

BOTH THE PERILS AND THE BEAUTY of our present generation came into sharp focus during our voyage to Africa to see last December 4th's total solar eclipse. As we prepared to board our cruise ship Marco Polo in Mombasa, Kenya, on November 28th, a bomb exploded in a resort hotel just a few kilometers from where we were staying, killing at least 16 people and injuring scores of others. At the same time, a chartered jet carrying Israeli tourists was taking off from Mombasa's airport when two surface-to-air missiles were fired at it. Fortunately, they missed the plane, and it was able to return safely to Tel Aviv. Amid increased tension and security, we were herded to the Marco Polo, which departed Mombasa with dispatch.

This rough beginning was overshadowed a week later by one of the most beautiful alignments that Mother Nature can provide--the Moon, the Sun, and a spot on Earth in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa southwest of Madagascar. As we sailed south through the Mozambique Channel and into the path of the eclipse, the weather remained favorable, with clear nights that allowed increasingly more southerly views of the sky. But as we neared our rendezvous point, the weather turned cloudy. On the eve of the eclipse the sky was almost completely overcast.

At 2 a.m. I awoke to see some scattered clouds. But the southern sky beckoned, so I headed to the forward deck just below the bridge and set up my 3 1/2-inch Questar telescope for a most unusual session of comet hunting. As the ship steamed across three-meter-high waves, the stars at first moved quickly through the 3/4[degrees] field of my eyepiece in a wavy pattern. But by keeping my hands on both the scope's altitude and azimuth controls, I was somehow able to keep the view relatively stable. I spent a memorable hour scanning the heavens from Alpha and Beta Centauri through the Coalsack and the Southern Cross and on to Eta Carinae. With the approach of dawn and more clouds, I stopped at 3:45 a.m.

A Race Against Nature

"I've raced speedboats," said Captain Nenad Mogic of the Marco Polo, "and I've raced while windsurfing. But I've never had to race a big ship against nature."

As the Sun rose on E-Day the sky looked pretty clear. My wife, Wendee, and I chose to set up our scope on the ship's uppermost deck, next to fellow Sky & Telescope contributing editor Steve O'Meara and his wife, Donna. As the appointed hour neared, S&T editor in chief Rick Fienberg briefed passengers over the ship's public-address system as to what was going to happen and what we could expect during the eclipse. But shortly before first contact at 7:19 a.m. local time, a cirrostratus cloud formed and quickly expanded above us. The ship began to chase a clear spot to the southeast. At first it looked as though the ship could easily break through the cloud cover in time, but as we missed first contact and got only occasional views of the partial phases, we got the impression that nature was playing a game with us--the faster our ship moved, the faster the cloud advanced along the eclipse track.

The Moon passed the halfway point in its coverage of the Sun with nary a clear view. At 8:20 a.m., with only 20 minutes to go to totality, it really didn't look as if we were going to see the corona. Rick explained the visual effects we might see despite the clouds--the Moon's shadow rushing from the northwest, followed by an all-consuming darkness. Then we heard a faint ringing of the ship's engine-room telegraph bell; the 22,000-ton ship picked up speed in a last-ditch effort to beat the advancing clouds. As black smoke belched furiously from its funnel, the ship surged forward at more than 20 knots. For the next few minutes we wondered if this valiant attempt would work, for the clouds continued to keep pace with the ship.

"One advantage of our eastward movement," Rick announced, "is that we've gained a second more of totality--we'll get 95 seconds instead of 94." With six minutes left to second contact, we finally started to get increasingly better views of the Sun's rapidly dwindling crescent. Interestingly, many didn't need to use solar filters; the clouds were just thin enough to provide comfortable viewing.

To the northwest the clouds were darkening so quickly that it was hard not to believe that a major storm was coming. Looking ahead, our efforts appeared to be paying off--the edge of the cloud near the Sun was beginning to dissipate! With less than four minutes to go, we could now steadily see the Sun's razor-thin sliver. Still the ship pressed southeastward near its top speed. We were in a race against time and the Moon's shadow.

"Totality in one minute," Rick's voice boomed over the ship's loudspeakers. Except for its engines, the ship was totally silent. Passengers on the deck were all gazing skyward, wondering: Would the clouds be thin enough that we would see anything at all, or would the Sun get totally eclipsed by clouds?

The Sun's crescent was shrinking so rapidly now that we could watch it in real time. Suddenly, as if someone had turned on a celestial light switch, the Sun's corona exploded into view. It was very blue--a stronger blue than I'd ever seen--with electric-pink prominences protruding around the lunar disk and two rays pointing southeast. Just as I had done during my comet hunting earlier that morning, I had to move both telescope controls to keep the Sun centered in the field. The ship was still racing southeastward, and it was worth it, for even during the short span of totality our views got clearer and clearer. Finally, in the last 15 seconds of darkness, the Sun's bright-red chromosphere made a brief appearance. With the end of totality the Sun's brilliant rim broke through in a magnificent display of Baily's Beads.

"You can't really race with nature," Captain Mogic said. Soon after totality ended, thick clouds moved in from the west. We barely pulled this one off! We're back in the real world now, with all its threats, problems, and joys. But for 95 wonderful seconds on December 4th we did race nature, and nature gave us a break. We saw a magnificent eclipse.

Contributing editor DAVID LEVY has been chasing total solar eclipses since he witnessed his first one in southern Quebec on July 20, 1963.
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Title Annotation:viewing stars from boats
Author:Levy, David H.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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