Voyage to Darkness

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
July 12, 1973

By Bay Stewart Leber

[Honolulu Star Bulletin— Voyage to Darkness'] "WHEN I GOT UP this morning, I took one look at the sky and thought I'd better go back to bed." Thus spoke Dr. Edward M. Brooks, meteorologist extraordinary, whose responsibility it was to guide the flagship of the P&O Fleet, S.S. Canberra, to a perfect alignment with the sun and moon off the coast of West Africa at Latitude 18° North, Longitude 21° 12' West on June 30, 1973. The alignment was perfect for the total solar eclipse; but unhappily a fourth item was in the same line —clouds — which threatened to eclipse the eclipse.

At his morning weather broadcast, Dr. Brooks was in a puzzlement. He was in close touch with the weather satellites and had to decide whether to move Canberra or to sit still and let the clouds move. He conferred with Capt. Eric Snowden of Canberra; and their consensus was to postpone moving the ship, which would shorten the eclipse, until later in the morning, if it seemed necessary at that time.

Dr. Brooks' decision was a wise one. The clouds soon began to disseminate; and shortly after the partial phase of the eclipse began the sky was a clear blue, deepening to shades of indigo as totality approached.

THUS THIS writer's 48-year-old dream was realized. On January 24, 1925, a teen-ager viewed a total eclipse of the sun in New London, Conn. Being thrilled by the spectacle, he "boned" up on eclipses and set his sights on the long duration African eclipse of 1973. This was his dream —my dream—and today it was fulfilled.

At the conclusion of the successful 1972 Voyage to Darkness, Dr. Phil Sigler, president of Eclipse Cruises, Inc., announced his proposed African Eclipse Cruise for 1973. He chartered the 45,000 ton S.S. Canberra, 15 stories tall and four city blocks long, the fifth largest passenger ship in the world. In two months it was sold out, being filled to cruise capacity by 1,868 eclipse buffs.

Included in these were residents of nearly every state in the United States and of eight foreign countries. More than one-third of last year's eclipse cruisers were repeaters this year. Many teen-agers and college students were aboard.

Meanwhile, so many additional people were clamoring for space that Dr. Sigler chartered another vessel, the Cunard Adventurer, which carried more than 700 passengers to rendezvous with the moon's shadow about 1,200 miles east of Venezuela. Their cruise, too, had an excellent view of the eclipse.

CANBERRA left New York on Friday, June 22, and headed for the African coast. Dr. Sigler, ably abetted by his pretty young wife, Marcy, and his brother-in-law, Ted Pedas, had collected a group of scientists as "faculty" for our cruise which would be the envy of any college administrator in the world. Every name on our staff is worthy of special note; but let us mention just a few.

Neil Armstrong, our first man on the moon; Dr. Isaac Asimov, author of more than 140 science fact and fiction books; Dr. Edward Brooks, geophysicist and one of the world's leading eclipse meteorologists; Scott Carpenter, astronaut and aquanaut; Dr. Joseph Chamberlain, expert in celestial navigation and director of Chicago's Adler Planetarium; Dr. Fred Hess, physical science professor; Dr. Allen Hynek, Northwestern University astronomy professor and U.S. Air Force consultant on the subject of unidentified flying objects; Dr. Charles H. Smiley, veteran of 15 solar eclipse expeditions, and Walter Sullivan. Science editor of the New York Times.

In addition, no less than seven planetarium directors are on board to assist the passengers in star identification and basic astronomy.

Never have I seen assembled in one location as many cameras and telescopes. The decks of Canberra looked like Tripod National Forest. No one knows the exact figure, but I would estimate the value of the scientific equipment brought on board to be between two and three million dollars.

EVERYTHING was on deck and in use this morning—from the very sophisticated expensive telescopes and cameras to the very amateur but beloved instruments held together with baling wire and counterweighted with bunches of cast iron pipe angles. Never had so much film been shot in a shorter time in so small an area.

The eclipse started right on schedule at 9:16a.m., as the 1,868 passengers assembled their equipment in the viewing areas which they had previously staked out. In fact, some of the younger scientists had forsaken their staterooms and had camped out on deck overnight with their equipment.

The light clouds which had worried us earlier dissolved as the lunar bite out of the sun increased. Then came the announcement that the moon's shadow had touched down in north-eastern South America and was racing toward us across the Atlantic Ocean. Soon our sister ship, Cunard Adventurer, radioed that their observation of totality had been most successful and advised us of special features of the eclipse.

AS THE SUN'S visible crescent waned, excitement waxed. The ocean took on a leaden hue. The shadows east by the sun seemed anemic. A tense hush seemed to descend on Canberra. Conversations were short and whispered. Final camera and telescope adjustments were made silently.

Then at 10:27 a.m., the remaining sunlight broke up into Bailey's Beads, caused by the sun shining through the valleys on the edge of the moon, which culminated in a brilliant diamond ring effect — one dazzling spot of sunlight surrounded by the golden circle of the inner corona.

In a second or two the diamond vanished; and totality was complete. The black Cyclops in the sky, the moon, had devoured the sun. No wonder primitive man was awed by this phenomenon. We who supposedly knew all about it were just as awed. Camera whirs and clicks and subdued whispers were all that broke the complete stillness and majesty of the spectacle.

DUE TO THE LENGTH of this eclipse, 5 minutes and 44 seconds at our location, we were able to tear our eyes away from the eclipsed sun and look at the stars and planets in the vicinity. No less than nine or ten night objects could be seen in the 10:30 a.m. sky.

Then, the appearance of the sun's red prominences at the trailing edge of the moon's disc heralded the end of totality. Suddenly at the top of the eclipsed sun a brilliant flash of light blazed forth. This created an even more glorious diamond ring than the one preceding totality and persisted for several seconds before forming the beads and crescent that marked the sun's return.

A HUGE SIGH of satisfaction and delight broke out, followed by spontaneous applause. No one knew why they were applauding. No one knew whom they were applauding. Were we applauding the sun, the moon, the Canberra, the cruise? No one knew — and no one cared. We — and I speak for all 1,868 of us — were happy. We had not merely seen a beautiful spectacle. We had felt it, experienced it. We were not only in perfect alignment with the sun and the moon, we were an integral part of the entire phenomenon.

There will be other eclipses, though none as long as this one until the year 2150. However please mark your calendars for July 11, 1991. On that day a long solar total eclipse will occur over portions of Hawaii. (Hope I see you there!).

There will be other eclipses. But to all of us on Canberra, there will never be a shorter or more glorious 5 minutes and 44 seconds than our rendezvous with the cosmos this morning, June 30, 1973.

Go to Canberra's Voyage to Darkness — African Eclipse Cruise

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