How 'Olympia' Found The Eclipse

The Oak Ridger, Tennessee
July 17, 1972

By Dick Smyser

[The Oak Ridger]
— Eight hundred passengers and most of the crew aboard this Greek Line luxury ship saw late Monday afternoon (July 10) what many astronomers on board describe as the most beautiful total eclipse of the sun in their experience.

Sky conditions were perfect; the ocean was calm as the Olympia shut down its engines and lay in wait 1000 miles due east of New York,

The Ship, on its unprecedented "Eclipse '72" voyage, left New York late Saturday afternoon, July 8, a line of severe storms flashing lightning over its wake. Saturday night and Sunday there were periods of thick clouds, rain and moderately heavy seas.

But by Monday morning, the clouds were off on the far horizons and the sun shone tantalizingly bright on the increasingly tingly passengers. By 3 p.m. upper decks were already crowded with scores of cameras and telescopes on tripods and hundreds of passengers holding their especially-issued darkest of glasses. These special glasses had been made in quantity for eclipse viewing on this cruise. And at 4:49p.m. (EDT), there it was:

The moon's disc perfectly in place over the face of the sun and a huge, flat, pearl-white, butter-fly-shaped corona about 30 degrees above the western horizon.

Fred Hess, professor of physical science at New York, State Maritime College, who Sunday and early Monday had thrilled passengers with the drama and intensity of his pre-eclipse shipboard lectures, called it the most brilliant and beautiful corona he'd ever seen. He had predicted its approximate size and shape, basing his projection on the fact that this is a time of low-level sunspot activity.

Spectacular " diamond ring" effects occurred just as totality was achieved and just as it ended — a sudden intense sparkling at one edge of the sun. The second was noticeably more spectacular.

" This was no ten karat thing." said Hess later of the " diamond ring" effect. " This was a Liz Taylor special." The "diamond ring" occurs when sunlight flashes through a crevice on the surface of the moon just an instant before or just an instant after totality.

Darkness was not as pronounced as anticipated. Only a relative few of the viewers discerned Mars, Mercury or Castor, Pollux and Capella, the planets and stars anticipated to be visible. Some of the astronomers theorized that the presence of clouds on the horizon — clouds which changed from fluffy white to deep blue-black as totality occurred — may have reflected more light than expected. Others speculated that dust in the atmosphere — pollution drifted eastward from the cities of Canada and the United States - was the reason.

The not quite two minutes of totality was breath-taking nonetheless — the jet black disc of the moon set on the searing white of the sun's corona reaching into the deep blue-gray of the cloudless sky beyond. And under it all, the blackened ocean.

It was, Hess said the morning after as he looked at the first developed color pictures, as though some giant comb had spread the corona's strands neatly outward to their extremities at the upper left and low right hand corners of the sun.

Or , perhaps, as though the sun had put its hand on the silver ball of a Van de Graaff generator and its silver hair was being made to stand on end.

The sun's corona — its seething, churning, exploding, licking outer area — is visible to man on earth only during a total eclipse.

Two hours after totality, the Olympia was back under a heavy cloud cover. The next morning, passengers awoke to the ship's fog horn as the sleek, white vessel, with smoke stack colors coincidentally in the ocean eclipse color scheme (blue, gold and black), plied through fog toward Gaspe, Quebec (Passengers had a day ashore there Wednesday.)

How, then, this perfect break in the otherwise rather foul weather, and at just the proper time?

It was no accident. And Monday night, the champagne corks that popped noticeably more numerously in the Olympia's huge dining room were not alone in celebration of the eclipse. They were in celebration also of Edward Brooks, professor of geophysics at Boston College.

It was Brooks' responsibility to decide to which of six possible eclipse viewing sites the Olympia should sail from New York. It was not until late Saturday night that he chose the mid-ocean spot over five other possible sites all within the Gaspe, Novia Scotia, Prince Edward Island Land and water area. (The total eclipse was seen in some of these areas, but not in others. In none was it seen any better than — and quite possible in none as well as it was seen from the Olympia.)

Brooks made his calculations on the basis of weather information somewhat less complete than he had expected. Unfortunately, the weather satellite receiving station at Bedford, Mass., became inoperative just before the cruise began and was unable to provide him with cloud bulletins. But, working with what he had, Brooks determined that the Olympia should sail through what first was a stationery front and into an area of the Gulf Stream.

On Sunday, passengers experienced the somewhat upsetting experience of having their eclipse-bound ship sail deliberately out of sunny skies and toward the cloudy and rainy front. And Sunday night, they watched more spectacular lightning, this time off the portside where a squall line ahead was making itself dramatically obvious.

Monday morning Brooks and his weather watchers learned that the front through which they had just taken the ship late Sunday was no longer stationery. It had begun moving — and in the ship's direction. Brooks, who held numerous weather briefings for passengers, was comforting. The front, he said over the ship's public address system was moving only about 15 miles an hour while the ship was doing the equivalent of about 20 miles an hour (ground speed). And the squall line ahead was moving even faster.

And so thus it was, a kind of parade: The Olympia staying ahead of the slow-moving front, which it had just outdistanced, but behind the faster-moving squall line, its navigation and timing nigh perfect to assure the ideal weather which occurred during the eclipse hours.

By mid-morning Monday, Brooks was announcing more reassuring word which he had gotten from weather officials in Washington (by radiotelephone) — this rather in place of that expected from the crippled Bedford station. Satellite pictures of weather in the North Atlantic showed that the Olympia was in a hole within a large cloud cover.

They showed also that the hole would get larger as the squall line to the southeast moved away faster than the front to the northwest was moving in.

And the Olympia was there, a smug vessel indeed, right in the heart of that hole (about 100 miles by 200 miles in dimension) and moving along with it (the cloud hole). And moving also, of course, along the center line of the path of total eclipse.

Brooks had said Sunday, "We could, of course, just stay here and enjoy the sun," a reference to the ship's early Sunday position in a clear area and its plans to move through the front. "But," he added, " we wouldn't see a total eclipse. And I think most of you would prefer to see a total eclipse."

His audience agreed unanimously. For this was a passenger list made up overwhelmingly of those who had come to see the total eclipse first and to enjoy the usual cruise pastimes — sun, games, food and drink — only secondarily.

During the early days of the cruise many fewer passengers attended cabarets, bingo and horse racing than went to the continuous seminar sessions held morning and afternoon in all of the ship's public rooms. Lectures, in basic astronomy, on the eclipse phenomenon in particular, on eclipse photography and oceanography drew standing room only crowds while the shuffleboard courts and bars were virtually unpopulated.

Scott Carpenter, the former astronaut turned aquanaut, was on board. He intrigued passengers with tales of the porpoises trained to aid Sealab experiments. He also conducted his own experiments in oceanography during the eclipse.

Greek Line officials continued to look on it all in surprise. The steamship firm had been highly skeptical of the success of such a cruise when Phil Sigler, professor of social sciences (a historian) at Staten Island Community College, and his brother-in-law, Ted Pedas, planetarium director at Youngstown, Ohio State University, first approached them with the idea.

But Greek Line was a bit less skeptical than had been a number of other cruise lines. They had virtually laughed in Sigler and Pedas' faces. Greek Line, after a little talking (and the fact that Pedas is of Graecian descent and speaks the language well might have helped) finally agreed to give it a try. They offered Sigler and Pedas a four-month option on the Olympia for the eclipse week in July. If before early 1972 they could produce evidence of interest in the cruise, Greek Line would schedule it.

Not only was interest apparent early in the year, but there was more interest than Greek Line had ever before experienced so far in advance of a scheduled cruise. By mid-Spring the cruise was assured of the sell out that it was, so quick and enthusiastic was the response to ads placed in publications appealing to astronomers and astronomy buffs. (There were also ads in general scientific journals.)

Sigler and Pedas first conceived the idea of a large group of people experiencing a total eclipse together after they had gone unsuccessfully to Canada to see the 1963 midsummer total eclipse. Sigler, who feels rather strongly about the need for the physical and social sciences to become more conversant, sees an eclipse as a sort of bridging experience. He thinks historically of the eclipse in terms of "from fear to fascination" — modern eclipse followers contrasting with the ancients who were panic-stricken at the sudden disappearance of their sun in midday.

(Sigler made special arrangements for all but 20 of the 370 Olympia crew members to be on deck for the two minutes of totality. They too were issued the special viewing glasses for the stages of the eclipse preceding and following totality. Sigler said that most of them were viewing their first eclipse. Many were noticeably moved.)

He first hoped to stage his sort of "Eclipse Woodstock" during the total eclipse of March 7, 1970. Checking that path of totality, he was intrigued by the coincidence of Eclipse, Va. (near Norfolk) lying along the path. On investigating, however, he found residents there less than enthusiastic about having their small town play host to a large number of outsiders. Some local officials would agree to cooperating only if Sigler promised that all those coming for the event would sign or swear to some sort of loyalty oath.

The prospect of security checks for eclipse watchers at the lone drawbridge leading into the coastal village did not appeal to Sigler. So he investigated along the coast of New England, which also lay along the path of 1970 totality. There, again, however, he found resistance to a sudden influx of visitors.

A closer look at the path of 1970 totality by him and Pedas led to the idea of a cruise. But, they found out soon that they were too late to make arrangements with any cruise line for 1970. So they began planning for 1972.

And, already, the Eclipse '72 cruise staff is planning for 1973 and a cruise off Africa to view the total eclipse that will occur there on June 30, 1973—an eclipse of seven minutes maximum totality, this being about as long as a total eclipse can last. There was much talk among Olympia passengers of being among the first to sign for next year's "Voyage to Darkness."

To experience an eclipse is to feel very much a part of the universe. For while sun, moon and Earth are there every day, when they align and produce the spectacular visual effects that they do in a total eclipse, one is newly-struck with the order of things. Many think of it as a very religious experience—a new awe of God. It also adds to one's appreciation of man's knowledge as you experience dramatically how precisely he is able to predict these solar-lunar occlusions, let alone steer a giant ocean liner into one of the few existing spots of bright, sunny skies during a summer noted in the Northeast for its erratic, unpredictable, mostly bad weather.

As Hess put it on the morning after the spectacularly successful viewing on this cruise, "What magnificence has been wrought on our 'Voyage to Darkness'. And it is for you for as long as you shall be."

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

Ted Pedas Links

E-mail:   Ted Pedas —