A tale of two eclipses
Phil Brocklebank, chairman of West Didsbury Astronomy Society, regales us with an eclipse-chasing tale spanning decades.
On Monday 10 August 1999 I joined many thousands of eclipse hopefuls on a journey to Devon and Cornwall to be ready and waiting in the path of totality for the Saros 145 eclipse occurring the next morning. On the train down from Manchester I was impressed to hear others describe how they had been planning this exact journey on this exact day for years, or even decades.
I had only recently realised that this would be the only opportunity in my lifetime to see a total eclipse from home shores.
I arrived at a fine campsite on the hills above Hope Cove in South Devon and turned in early after checking the forecast, which was not looking promising for eclipse day.
The day itself dawned clear with fleeting glimpses of the Sun through broken clouds. Unfortunately, this turned out to be the only time I would see the Sun that day. I joined many others on a headland above Bigbury Bay, with an impressive collection of telescopes, cameras and pin-hole boxes.
Totality at 11:11 passed with the skies totally clouded out.
I do however vividly remember the curtain of totality darkness beneath the low cloud base approaching fast across Bigbury Bay, followed by an eerie cooling of the air and very confused birdsong. Camera flashes could be seen for miles along the coast.
On the train home I borrowed an astronomy book and found myself dreaming about future eclipse opportunities. These dreams settled on the next occurrence of Saros 145 in August 2017, when the path of totality would sweep right across the US from Oregon to South Carolina.
I enrolled for an Astronomy GCSE that autumn and joined the brand new West Didsbury Astronomy Society shortly afterwards. Somehow, I was elected chairman a year later, a role I have enjoyed ever since.
Second attempt: solar eclipse, US, 21 August 2017
Wind forward one whole Saros cycle and my wife, family and I arrived in Cameron, Missouri. We had booked motel rooms in January, which was well before the people of Cameron realised the eclipse was heading their way.
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By August the rooms were being sold for ten times what we had paid. The weather forecast for eclipse day in the run-up had looked dismal and seemed to get even worse as the event grew nearer.
Monday 21 August dawned cloudy but dry. We were glued to online cloud forecasts and were all getting more and more gloomy as the morning unfolded.
We set off east for a town that had a slightly better forecast, driving through the pouring rain. NASA’s website was starting to show live images of first contact from Oregon.
I had this horrible feeling that 18 years of planning was going to end with us sat in a hire car in the rain watching the eclipse on NASA’s live stream via our smartphones.
We were not completely defeated, but with about 90 minutes remaining until totality we were running out of options. The forecast still seemed to be slightly better further east, so we set off again in eclipse-chasing mode. We needed to be careful to stay within the 50-mile-wide path of totality.
Driving fast and east we emerged from pouring rain into drizzle and then into a just overcast sky. Quite suddenly we spotted a small patch of blue sky directly in front of us in the distance. Excitement was building with each mile driven east, but it was very hard to tell whether the patch of blue sky was getting any nearer.
We passed many cars parked up with their occupants huddled outside under umbrellas, but that patch of blue sky just kept getting closer! At totality minus 20 minutes, we pulled into Alma, Missouri. As we got out of the car, quite miraculously, the clouds cleared.
We had but a few minutes to find our eclipse glasses before totality started. It was a truly wonderful sight and all that I had ever dreamt that it would be. The corona, diamond ring and Bailey’s Beads deeply impressed us all.
I think my adult children admitted that they had found it moving and impressive. They had all particularly enjoyed the chase, perhaps even more so than seeing totality. Fate certainly smiled on us that day: an hour later, it was pouring with rain again!
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