A Memorable Story of an Eclipse

Last updated 2001-01-22

This story is not mine. However, as I regard it as one of the more memorable I've seen, I thought you might enjoy it too. It presents a remarkable perspective of the solar eclipse of 1999-08-11, as seen from southwestern England.

The story was written by Ken Osborne, amateur radio callsign G4IGO. I first saw the story in an amateur radio discussion group. However, I have removed the references to amateur radio buzzwords to make it more accessible to more normal people. I have also added units that are a little more comprehensible in these modern times.

I'd just like to share with you our experience of The Solar Eclipse yesterday. Myself and Roger G4HBA (amateur callsign) took the day off and decided to make a go and see what we could see. We decided that even an event that was clouded over would still be worthwhile so off we set.

I left home (nr Yeovil) and set out for Roger's (near Honiton) at around 4:30 BST--the road was already alive with traffic! I arrived at Roger's and set off to the south west round 05:30 BST. We had two places in mind--as we went along we kept an active debate and the pros and cons and the weather! Roger was suggesting a place on the south coast of Devon, in the zone of totality. I was a little sceptical--mostly because of traffic. As it turned out, Roger was right and his choice probably made it a better event than it otherwise would have been.

We arrived after great driving and navigating (won't say who did what!) at around 07:30 BST. The place was alive! The queue for the toilet--note singular--was getting longer. We were ready to make a killing when the loo roll ran out--we each had one! The site was high on a headland with a sea view from about 290 degrees through south to 70 degrees. This fact proved to be a fantastic advantage. We settled down for the wait and set up listening to the 50 and 144 MHz amateur bands and the TV sound. We detected a few short openings to Yugoslavia, Italy and southern Spain on 50 MHz during the next couple of hours--but nothing too strong. On 144 MHz there was evidence of a lift on FM repeaters. This phenomenon happened just before the eclipse. We feel that this lifting was due to the approaching front that brought the clouds.

The day started very well--light cloud and some sea mist, that quickly disappeared. For an hour or so it looked good but around 09:00 it started to change and the cloud gently thickened. There was very little wind and it was reasonably warm. At around 10:00 a break in the cloud gave us the first glimpse of the eclipse--a bite out of the NE corner of the Sun. This was in fact the best view we had--a couple of shorter views a bit later was the last. We just settled down and listened to the TV and waited. Around 10:45 it was clear that the light was going, and not due to the clouds; they were staying at about the same thickness. My light meter on the camera showed up the loss. This continued slowly to drop to dull daylight levels. By 10:50 the sky started to take on a very unusual look as it progressed--the clouds took on different shapes and hues as the light from above gradually faded.

The wind picked up a little and there was a slight drop in temperature. Roger noticed it a little more than myself. The whole site was quiet--no radios, very little talk--very still and quiet. The sky still continued to get darker--that of itself was unimaginable but what was to come was unforgettable. Listening on the TV we heard that the eclipse was just total in the Isles of Scilly--about 3 more minutes from us--then Penzance, then Falmouth. About a minute to go--still the sky darkened. Still unbelievable how dark it was--would it get any darker? Little did we know!

Looking to the western horizon we suddenly saw this black wall coming at us at immense speed. All the clouds just disappeared in a wall of black. Then it hit us. Night falling was the only way to describe it--it did!--and was it dark. I'm sure that just about everybody at our site let out a small gasp of astonishment. I did! Due to the cloud cover there was no light from anywhere except from the small bit of area on all the horizons at about 20 miles [32 km] distance which was just outside the area of totality--dark orange and only a couple of degrees above the horizon. This was all we could see by--unearthly. This continued for two minutes or so--it didn't seem like it--the minutes passed "as in the twinkling of an eye".

A lot of commentators made the point that the only way they could describe the event was "eerie". It was--so very eerie. I, and Roger, have never experienced anything like that feeling before--and probably never will again.

After about two minutes of totality we suddenly saw the western horizon lightening rapidly and then the cone of totality (what a great word--it absolutely describes the event) left us and the sky began to have definition. This continued to increase at an ever-accelerating speed and daylight as we know began to return. By 11:20 things were getting back to normal. Just as the totality ended there was a burst of applause from all around and somebody let off three large skyrockets which did not spoil but rather enhanced the effect--well done to whomever!

As the cone left us we looked to the East where there was a bank of cloud about 25 or 30 miles [40 or 50 km] away. It was fascinating to see them turn from dull white to grey to dark grey to black and then back as the cone affected them--that was eerie also. The end came quickly and we set off for home. Luckily we were at the start of the rush and managed to get home in about 3 hours--we can't grumble.

The memories that will always stick with Roger and myself will be the very quick change from very dark to total darkness, the effects on the clouds, the unimaginable and really indescribable view of dawn on all points of the compass when we were in the centre of totality, the "Dawn" on the western horizon, and lastly but not least all of the little red and green lights from all the boats and ships we could see in the 20 miles [32 km] horizon--which was the cone of totality--bobbing up and down on the sea. It was a unique experience but made all the more of an experience due to the proximity of the several hundred other bodies all around--a shared experience. As Roger said to me tonight--at times the hairs on the back of the neck really did stand up.

It would have been very nice to have seen the full clear eclipse but I really do feel that the presence of the clouds gave an added dimension to the effect. This was also clear from comments by the Astronomers that chase Eclipses--they clearly hadn't seen one under these conditions. It is now so clear the effect that this type of event, in cloudy conditions did have on our ancestors. We knew that the Sun would go out above the clouds--they didn't. It must have frightened them to death--probably literally.

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