Sky Dragons and Flaming Swords

The Story of Eclipses, Comets, and Other Strange Happenings in the Skies

by Marietta D. Moskin

Walker& Co.

Chapter Five

The Eclipse Hunters

[Sky Dragons and Flaming Swords] …Eclipse-hunting remained a "sport" reserved for serious scientists until well past the middle of our own century. But in 1963 a young eclipse enthusiast dreamed up a plan that would bring the eclipse-watching experience to a lot of other enthusiastic and curious people.

Marcy Pedas, a Greek-American college girl from a small steel town in Pennsylvania, had come to Trois Riviéres in Canada with her astronomer brother and a friend to watch the eclipse of July 20, 1963. It was an unforgettable experience.

As Marcy watched the sky turn colors and darken, and the sun seem to disappear, she felt herself reacting the way her Greek shepherd ancestors might have reacted on a similar occasion. As the seconds and minutes of darkness ticked by, something within Marcy strongly wanted the darkness to go away and the sun to reappear. And yet, when it was over and the sun had broken free from the moon's dark shadow, Marcy knew that this was something she wanted to experience again. Having been thrilled by what she had seen, she wanted to share the experience with others.

As it turned out, the next eclipse she could hope to attend would cross the northeastern United States on March 7, 1970. Seven years is a long time to wait. Marcy finished college, married the friend who had watched the Canadian eclipse with her, and went to work as an elementary-school teacher. But her dreams about organizing an eclipse party for a group of interested friends stayed in her mind. She studied the maps. The 1970 eclipse would be visible from many places along the East Coast. To Marcy's delight, one place in its path was a tiny town near Norfolk, Virginia, called Eclipse.

What a suitable place for an eclipse party, she thought. And so, early in 1970, she traveled to Eclipse to see if she could book hotel or motel reservations for a sizable group.

To Marcy's dismay, the people of Eclipse wanted no part of such a project. Fearful of what a large group of outsiders might do, the townspeople of Eclipse refused to cooperate. Defeated, Marcy, along with her husband, Phil, and her brother, Ted, left Virginia to look for another suitable site. They explored the island of Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts, that was to be in the path of the eclipse. But Nantucket, even with all its hotels and guest houses, showed no interest in housing a group of amateur astronomers. Traveling back to Cape Cod on the ferry, Marcy sadly went over the list of requirements for staging an eclipse party. She needed a place large enough to assemble a sizable crowd and equipped with bathrooms and restaurant facilities.

There ought to be places like that, she thought. Even the ferry had most of these requirements — bathrooms, food, space to set up telescopes and other instruments.

The ferry! It was a crazy idea, but it might work. Why not watch the eclipse from the deck of a ship? A ship could be steered to the best possible vantage point.

As it turned out, ferries may operate only within their own established runs. But the idea of an eclipse party on board a ship had been born. It was too late to organize such a cruise for the 1970 eclipse, but another one was practically around the corner in 1972. With renewed enthusiasm, Marcy set out to find a ship whose crew was willing to sail to Nova Scotia in June 1972.

It was a difficult search. Most shipping companies laughed at the request from a penniless young woman without experience in the travel field to charter a ship for a cruise to an offbeat part of the Atlantic Ocean. By now Marcy and Phil had enlarged their dream to include many more people than their own group of personal friends. They were sure they would find enough astronomy buffs to fill a ship if they advertised in astronomy magazines. Finally, a small Greek Shipping line agreed to provide a ship if Marcy could produce a sufficient number of paying customers by a certain date. With misgivings, Marcy and Phil dug into their meager savings to pay for the ads in the astronomy magazines and planetarium newsletters.

To their amazement, and to that of the shipping line, reservations with deposit checks began to pour in. Before long, the line had booked more passengers for the eclipse cruise than for any of the regular cruises. Still there were obstacles. The most serious one occurred when the captain declared that, according to shipping regulations, he would have to turn on the ship's lights when the sky grew dark during the eclipse. That, of course, would prevent a clear view of the eclipse and would make photography difficult. Angrily, Marcy sat down and addressed letters to some six hundred paid-up customers to announce that the trip would have to be canceled. With the box of stamped and addressed letters under her arm, she stormed into the offices of the shipping company and announced her ultimatum: Either the captain would agree to keep the lights off during the eclipse, or the cancellation letters would go directly into the nearest mailbox.

Marcy won. On June 8, 1972, her first eclipse cruise, with 830 passengers on board, sailed from New York to the waters off Nova Scotia. Two days later, at 3:47 p.m., the travelers observed a total eclipse under nearly perfect weather conditions. Crowded on the decks, the eclipse-hunters observed the approaching black shadow of the moon — a black shape something like a tornado — and the "diamond ring" effect, which showed up just before the moon fully covered the face of the sun. They watched the bright coronal streamers protruding from the edge of the sun. Some noted the slight drop in temperature, the eerie light that cast a ghostlike pallor over people and objects alike. And they spoke about changes in the color of the sea, which began to turn a deep purple as the eclipse proceeded toward totality.

The amateur eclipse-hunters had been carefully briefed on how to observe and photograph an eclipse safely without damaging their eyes. Precautions included the use of pinhole cameras and special smoked glasses to protect their eyes from the burning rays of the sun. It is never safe to watch an eclipse without these protective devices until after totality is reached.

The 1972 expedition was such a success that many more have taken place since then. While later eclipse cruises attracted many scientists, science writers, astronauts, and astronomers, the bulk of the passenger list was still made up of ordinary people — schoolteachers, students, and photography buffs. Marcy's dream of sharing her excitement with others was fulfilled, and she created a special occupation for herself - a Pied Piper of sorts for those who share her own special sense of curiosity, adventure and wonder.

Biography — Marcy Pedas Sigler

Publications — Marcy Pedas Sigler

Links — Marcy Pedas Sigler

E-mail:   Marcy Pedas Sigler —