Eclipse 1999

This is being written the day after the eclipse, and already I am forgetting some of the details of that incredible two minutes. The trouble is, there were so many details all coming at once, and it was impossible to fix them all the in the mind.

With my friends Margaret and George I had arranged to be in Devon so as to take a cruise which would go from Totnes down the river Dart into the open sea to view the eclipse. On the day of the eclipse we left Lympstone at five-thirty in the morning, to ensure being at Totnes when the cruise began at eight o’clock. This proved to be over-cautious, because we arrived at Totnes at 6-45, having not encountered all that much traffic, but it was nice to be up and about in town so early in the morning, an unusual experience for me! At five-thirty the sky was clear, and it stayed that way all the way to Totnes. We had breakfast at seven, and when we emerged at half-past the sky was suddenly covered with cloud, and our hearts sank.

Still, there was the cruise to look forward to, even though the eclipse looked as though it would be a washout. There were two other boats which were crowded, but our boat seemed only to have a few handfuls of passengers. We set off down the river Dart towards the coast, passing forests descending steeply to the river, shipyards, castles, herons, cormorants and egrets.

By the time we reached the sea we had more-or-less given up on the eclipse, and had relegated it to the back of our minds, but as we pushed out from the coast we began to think about it again. There would surely be something to see; it would be dark, and previous accounts had spoken of the shadow of the moon rushing across the clouds, making those on the ground instinctively duck.

X marks the spot! The general area

Eventually we arrived at our designated point off the coast, marked on the map with a red cross, and the captain stopped the engines. There were boats all over the place. Two large river-cruisers near us were also bobbing quietly on the waves, and there were sailing boats all the way to the horizon. Looking back to the shore we could see Start Point, the headland to our west-south-west, and the hills running all the way behind us.

It was quite a strange experience anyway, without the eclipse, to be gently rising and falling on the swell of a calm sea, our engines quiet, the sound of the water lapping at the keel. The cloudy sky caused a non-directional kind of light; the kind which casts no shadows. Every now and then a small ‘window’ opened between the clouds, and it was possible to see the sun through a layer of higher cloud. This was good, because it meant that we got a view of the sun without having to use the solar viewers. The nation seemed to be so paranoid about the possibility of eye-damage that we had been supplied with viewers of a degree of transparency just barely above that of corrugated iron. When the clouds cleared to the extent that the sun shone brilliantly for a couple of seconds, it was just possible to see the faintest smudge of light through the viewer but apart from that, a ‘viewer’ was exactly what it was not.

Soon, happily using our unshielded eyes, we began to see a tiny bite out of the top right-hand side of the sun. The solar disc would then hide itself with all the coyness of an over-cautious stripper until we were bursting with impatience and desire, and then grant us another brief view. Each time the disc of the moon advanced a little further across its surface. At this stage we were more concerned about seeing the sun, and we were desperately hoping that the clouds would clear when totality came, although we knew that they would not.

But the light was slowly changing; it was gradually gaining a metallic quality. The horizon, which had been clearly delineated, was now becoming difficult to see; where the sea met the sky they were indistinguishable planes of silvery grey. I noticed, suddenly, that the light intensity had diminished enormously. In the early stages your eyes compensate for the lower levels of light, but then suddenly you notice how much the light has faded.

We saw that the sun was now more than half-covered by the moon. The light now had a steely quality. Everything was grey and flat, without shade or definition. It was now thirteen minutes until totality. The moon continued to encroach, although we were now only seeing the sun very briefly behind the building cloud. The last time I saw it there was only a thin crescent of light.

The lighthouse on Start Point suddenly came on, its green light shining into the gloom; it was now difficult to make out details on the shore. Everything had become very oppressive, and it was as though the whole of this arena - the coast, the sky, the sea, was now in a kind of suspended animation, waiting for the umbra to arrive and open out above us. I completely forgot to look to see whether it was possible to make out anything of the sun - the scene below was now so compelling.

The darkness continued to descend. At ten past eleven it was like twilight. The lighthouse was now shining brightly, its green light beginning to reflect on the sea. The land to the west was like a large black bolster, and the sky behind it was ominously dark, although to the east it was still light.

"I don’t think it’s going to get any darker than this," came the rather bored voice of one of the passengers on the boat. My friends and I grinned to each other, and kept looking towards the west.

At thirteen minutes past the darkness in the west became progressively more intense. "Here it comes!" I cried out and the blackness deepened, and one sensed a movement towards us across the sky. It was as though a lighting engineer was using a slider to turn down the lights on a stage set. The darkness swamped the sky. I looked up, and it was over us, and we were suddenly covered with darkness. People on the boat were either cheering, or making sounds of astonishment.

And it was suddenly night. The shore itself was almost invisible, apart from the thousands of flashes which now covered it - the lights from the flashbulbs of the thousands of photographers recording this moment. The light of the lighthouse speared out brightly into the dark, its reflection shining brightly on the water. It was a strange kind of darkness. It was dark-blue, contrasting with the line of pink light which ran along the horizon of the sea. One of my friends subsequently described it as like ‘being covered by a gigantic dinner plate’. I suppose the level of the darkness was that which one would get in the middle of a summer’s night.

The whole scene was totally unnatural. There was a band of light all around, from the south to the east to the north - a thin line of light which flickered with pink and rose. But where we were it was night, a strange and oppressive night. I could just make out my companions. The land was defined by the continuing scintillation of the flashbulbs. From the headland the light of the lighthouse flared into our eyes. Everything was silent.

We had two minutes of totality. It was two minutes in which the normal rules of the world had been suspended, in which we had been plunged from a normal August day into a dark and silent world. Two minutes sounds like a reasonable time, but in fact it seemed like ten seconds. We suddenly became aware of a glow in the sky to the west. To the east, too, the light was increasing. Pink clouds became visible above the hills on the coast. For a few brief seconds there was the most incredible sight of a dawn in the west, and what looked like another dawn in the east! The sky went through a whole range of colours; red, pink, gold. Suddenly light fountained up in the west. I looked up, to see the clouds lightening. By the time I looked to the east again, the darkness had rushed away, and it was day once more.

I found that my hands were shaking.

It was an experience that seemed to hit me on a very primeval level. Usually when I witness astronomical phenomena, I feel a sense of awe. Looking at Hale-Bopp through binoculars I felt this very strongly as I gazed at this distant alien object that had briefly entered our little region of space. But I didn't feel awe on this occasion. It was more a strange mixture of feelings. First and foremost, absolute delight; I had been privileged to witness the best light show that anybody could ever see. It was the same feeling that one might have when watching a superb fireworks show, although this was far better than anything man could devise.

But also I did feel a curious bond with the other people in the boat and with those on the shore. I think the reason was that for an astronomical phenomenon, it was a curiously domestic event. I was very conscious of the fragility of human life, and how each person is a part of this human race which fights all the time for its survival, even when it is not aware of doing so. We take the sun for granted; seeing what happened at eleven-thirteen on an August morning when the light disappeared briefly made one very aware of how our existence depends on so many things which are essentially impermanent and vulnerable.

I had always been very sceptical of those who spoke about the emotional aspect of witnessing an eclipse. I tended to dismiss this as new-age hype. But I felt it too, as we all did. We all felt that it had been a profound experience.

Had the sky been clear, it would have been a different experience, but not necessarily a better one. As it was, what had originally seemed to be a terrible disadvantage now seemed to me to be something which made the experience special. Had I been looking at the sun I would have missed all the weird lighting effects I saw, and the strange atmospheric events. I would, of course, have seen other exciting things! It is clear that the only way to do it is to see more than one eclipse. Indeed, George is now saving up to go and see the next one in Madagascar!

We were lucky in that Margaret decided to book the cruise. Certainly, seeing it from the sea made it a particularly special event. On the land one would not have seen the panorama of light that we saw.

Moving back through the water towards Dartmouth I found that I was constantly going through the events in my mind, reliving that weird moment as totality arrived, and the strange sights which followed. I spoke to the man who had been bored, and had expressed the view that we weren’t going to see much more than dimness. "Wasn’t it incredible?" he said. I told him how I had found it. "Eerie," he said, "yes, that’s the word. It really was eerie, wasn’t it?"

People interviewed on TV that night who had experienced totality described the same events we had seen. "I have been permanently changed by this," one of them said.

Well, I was going to say that we are all changed by our experiences, and that I hadn’t been drastically changed by what I had experienced. But then I started thinking that perhaps I could put an eclipse page on my website, and it occurred to me that in one respect I had been permanently changed.

I had become an eclipse bore!