Tales from the Eyepiece: Eclipse Chasing, A Tale of Two Eclipses

by Phil Brocklebank

You have probably heard about tornado chasing. Let me tell you my tale about eclipse chasing.

This tale starts in August 1999 and ends in August 2017. The start coincided with the beginnings of my interest in astronomy. The end very nearly marked the end of my interest in astronomy.

On Monday 10th August 1999 I joined many thousands of eclipse hopefuls to journey down to Devon and Cornwall to be ready in the path of totality for the Saros 145 eclipse the next morning. On the train down from Manchester I was impressed to hear others describe how they had been planning this journey on this day for years or even decades. I had only recently realised that this would be the only credible opportunity in my lifetime to see an eclipse from home shores. At the start of my train journey I had planned to get off in Penzance and cycle out to The Lizard. In those days, mobile phones did texts and calls, so I left it to my colleagues in the office to text me regular weather updates. Based on these, I got off the train in Plymouth and cycled out to Hope Cove.

I found a fine campsite on the hills above The Cove and turned in early after a fine meal and couple of pints in The Hope and Anchor. It was pretty cloudy then, with the forecast not looking promising for Eclipse Day. The Day dawned clear with fleeting glimpses of the sun through broken clouds. This turned out to be the only time I would see the sun that day. The clouds closed in as the morning passed.

I joined a slightly forlorn bunch of folk walking out to a headland to the south of The Cove, with fine views of the west horizon over Bigbury Bay. There was an impressive collection of telescopes, cameras and pin hole boxes set up on the headland. As the time for totality of 11:11 approached the crowd adopted a truly resigned air to the inevitable fact that we were not going to see totality.

A forlorn bunch facing the inevitable

I 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 temperature and very confused birdsong. Camera flashes could be seen for miles along the coast; I wondered what these achieved. All too quickly it was over, and I joined the decidedly forlorn bunch of folk walking back to ‘No Hope’ Cove.

On the train home, there was an air of resigned acceptance amongst my fellow passengers. I borrowed a book and found myself dreaming about future eclipse opportunities. These dreams settled on the next occurrence of Saros 145, in August 2017, with the path of totality sweeping right across the USA from Oregon to South Carolina. The dreams became a plan that I would be rich and retired by then, that this would be the final holiday that I would pay for for my children and that it could only be clear and sunny in the USA in August. It turns out that I was wrong on all counts!

I enrolled for an Astronomy GCSE that autumn (awarded an A* of course) and joined the brand new West Didsbury Astronomy Society (www.wdas2.com) shortly afterwards. Somehow, I was elected chairman a year later, a role I have enjoyed ever since.

Wind forward one whole Saros cycle and my wife and I were joined by our three 20-something old children at her brother’s house in Minneapolis, USA on Saturday 19th August 2017. The path of totality through Missouri was closest point to Mineapolis at a mere nine hours’ drive away. That kept us occupied on the Sunday, with the nine of us arriving rather tired at the Motel6 in Cameron, Missouri that evening. My sister-in-law had booked the rooms in January, which was well before Cameron realised the eclipse was heading their way; in August he rooms were being sold for ten times what we had paid. The weather forecast for E-Day in the preceding days had looked pretty dismal with showers and thunderstorms looking quite likely. The forecast was getting worse as E-Day got nearer.

Monday 21st August dawned cloudy but dry. My wife instructed our children to put their default activity of teasing Dad on hold for that day! Because you can, we were glued to on line phone weather and cloud forecasts and were all getting more and more gloomy as the morning unfolded. The town of Richmond, a 90 minute drive east, but still in the path of totality had a slightly better forecast, so we set off for there mid morning. We drove the 90 minutes in pouring rain to arrive in Richmond in the rain, with the forecast now better back in Cameron. Nasa’s website was starting to show live images of first contact from Oregon. I had this horrible feeling that eighteen years of planning and anticipation, not to mention an investment of quite a few hundreds of pounds to get the whole family to Missouri, was going to end sat in a hire car in the rain watching the eclipse on Nasa’s live stream on a phone.

We were not completely defeated, but with about 90 minutes remaining until totality we were running out of options (and hope). The forecast still seemed to be slightly better further east so we set off again, with a seemingly hopelessly optimistic view that we might find a patch of blue sky. We needed to be careful to stay within the 50 mile wide path of totality. Driving fast and east along the wonderfully straight US roads we emerged from pouring rain into drizzle and then into just an overcast sky. Quite suddenly we spotted a small patch of blue sky in the distance, wonderfully located directly in the direction that the east bound straight road was taking us. Frantic phone calls to family in the car in front of us urged them to dare to break the strict 60mph speed limit just that once.

Windscreen wipers still on, a rural road and blue sky tantalising us

Excitement was building with each mile driven east, but it was very hard to tell if the patch of blue sky was getting any nearer. Just as we convinced ourselves that it was, the straight road turned sharply 90 degrees, with us now heading north and the patch of blue sky visible out of the side windows. We turned right at the first opportunity and tried to keep speed and hopes up on an undulating rural farmland road. We passed many cars parked up with their occupants huddled outside under umbrellas. But the patch of blue sky was getting nearer! At totality minus 20 minutes, we pulled into Alma, Missouri, a traditional one horse town, and stopped in the first parking lot we found. We felt the warmth from the sun (from behind clouds) as we got out of the car with the edge of the clouds now high in the sky and getting closer to the sun. Miraculously, the clouds cleared.

We had but a few minutes to find our eclipse specs before TOTALITY started. This 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 children actually admitted that they had found it moving and impressive. They had all particularly enjoyed The Chase, perhaps even more so than seeing totality.

An hour later, it was pouring with rain again!

An ‘instamatic’ photo of totality, our only one

We enjoyed a brief picnic lunch in the sunshine, seeing fine shadow bands from the leaves above our picnic table. An hour later it was pouring with rain again as we headed back to Cameron. We wondered how the umbrella huddlers outside Alma had fared.

Alma Missouri, forever in my heart

Some friends from WDAS saw the eclipse from Grand Teton National Park. They had clear blue skies from dawn till dusk, which sounded rather ‘boring’ to me.

Alma, Missouri will forever have a special place in my heart. My interest in astronomy will continue, but I feel that one experience of totality will be enough for me. Now I just need to work out how to retire and how to stop paying for my children to come on holiday with us!