Astronomer-turned-travel agent eclipses doubters on high seas

The Herald
February 29, 1999
By Joe Pinchot, Herald Staff Writer

[The Herald reprint'] When Ted Pedas first approached cruise lines with his idea of sailing passengers to view a solar eclipse at sea, he was laughed at.

“Everyone was going to St. Thomas and the warm countries,” the Farrell man said. "I wanted to go north for a one-minute eclipse."

The Greek Line took a chance on him in 1972 and he attracted astronaut Scott Carpenter for the trip.

Sky and Telescope magazine scoffed at the venture as a “Frill” said Pedas, an astronomer who heads the Ted Pedas Planetarium at Farrell Area High School and was a long time professor at Youngstown State University. “The first eclipse cruise I did I was ridiculed.”

But that ridicule turned to praise as seeing eclipses by sea has become the preferred method of viewing, according to the on-line travel magazine Vapor Trails.

“We were among the few who saw it,” Pedas said of the eclipse, “ Everyone on land got clouded out.”

Cruise lines noted the trip attracted a different clientele than they were used to serving.

The New York Times detailed the passengers lugging expensive camera equipment and telescopes. They didn't hang out in the bar. At midnight they were with the astronomical experts on the deck to study the night sky.

Pedas' passengers aren't from the fun in the sun crowd. They have an interest in the theme of the cruise and pursue it fervently, making his voyages an Elderhostel on the high seas.

“From a business sense it doesn't do any good to try to compete with the bigger companies,” Pedas said. “They have bigger ships, newer ships. Why should anyone come with me? Because of the destinations and the world-class experts who come. The people who go on the so called fun ships wouldn't be caught dead with me.”

Many people are even willing to share room with strangers for Pedas cruises, he said. “The shipping lines were very surprised.”

Pedas presides over a mini-empire that caters to non-traditional cruisers. He arranges cruises to see eclipses and other astronomomical phenomena, and to historical destinations such as Egypt and Greece. His eclipse cruises are perennial sell-outs and he averages 99 percent of passenger capacity overall.

Pedas had 3,500 passengers for a 1973 African eclipse cruise and a 1986 Halley's Comet cruise. He will have 3,000 people on four ships in the Black Sea to see an eclipse in August.

“I think I found a niche in the market for the kinds of cruises that weren't there,” said Pedas, who started his company with his sister, Marcy Sigler, who lives in New York.

Pedas spends four to five months a year on the high seas but can't make all of the trips he plans.

This year's destinations include South America in March and April, the Middle East and Greece on four different cruises in July through September, and a Leonid meteor shower trip in November.

All the voyages are with Royal Olympic Cruises.

While some of the sites are well-established tourist attractions Pedas tries to find places not under the crush of tourists, such as Honduras and lesser-traveled sites in Greece.

“I always try whenever I can to include new things and unusual places,” he said. “These are very pristine, very ideal places with very few tourists. You are almost a curiosity piece for being there.”

Pedas prepares his passengers with extensive pre-boarding information and videos of the cruise theme. He also sends out information on cruise subjects to former passengers. He has 38,000 people on his mailing list.

“I think of them as family,” Pedas said of his passengers. “Some are with me many, many times.”

Fans of eclipses are his most loyal passengers.

“Eclipses are addictive. People come again and again. It's something to see the moon shadow race across the sky at 1,700 mph and temperatures drop and the stars come out during the day. And then the reverse. It's like a religious experience to many people.”

Pedas, who is writing a book on eclipses, has worked with nine different cruise lines over the years, depending on destinations, and other cruise lines have started using some of his program ideas, he said.

Last year, 17 ships converged in the Caribbean for an eclipse.

“Every ship that's going to the Black Sea that week (in August) will be doing a quote,‘eclipse cruise’ ” Pedas said of his upcoming trip. “They lack the enrichment lecture staff which we will have.”

Pedas said he doesn't mind seeing his ideas stolen or lecturers jumping ship to other cruise lines. “I think if I was mean-spirited about things I wouldn't be as successful.”

The experts and visitors Pedas has reeled in include television personalities Walter Cronkite, Hugh Downs, Charles Kuralt and Bill Moyers, authors James Michener and Arthur Clarke, astronaut Neil Armstrong, past and former Librarians of Congress, comet discoverer Dr. Tom Bopp and Dr. Sergei N. Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet Leader.

Astronaut Scott Carpenter has sailed with Pedas 17 or 18 times.

“Sometimes the passengers are more interesting than the lecturers,” Pedas said, “We've had two Nobel Prize winners. We had Harriett Stratemeyer Adams, who did the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. Afterward she wrote a book on eclipses for kids. ”

Passengers also have suggested destinations that Pedas later organized, including Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands.

For his astronomical cruises, Pedas claims to have a perfect score in seeing eclipses. On-board meteorologists help navigators find clear skies.

In 1995, Pedas even cruised into the Pacific waters of southeast Asia at the beginning of the hurricane season.

“I took a calculated risk,” he explained, “I wanted to prove the maneuverability aspect of the thing. We had three different weather places from around the world sending us information.”

The ship found clear skies and escaped before storms set in, he said.

Pedas said he gets a lot of satisfaction putting together cruises.

“It's so challenging and you feel so good to come up with ideas and see them implemented. It's amazing to think that from here in Farrell (Pennsylvania) I've been able to start so many things that people copied.”

Go To Eclipse'72 — Olympia's Voyage to Darkness

Ted Pedas Links

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