Total Eclipse, 11th August 1999

A Personal Description

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Choice of area

I had been looking forward to this eclipse for 50 years, so I was particularly keen to have a good look at it. My original thought, a year before the event, was that my wife and I could stay overnight (and probably longer) with our younger daughter and her husband Barry in north Devon, just outside the zone of totality, and drive to the relevant area of south Devon or Cornwall that morning. However, predictions of gridlocked roads in the area, especially when coupled with weather forecasters saying the area had only a 40% chance of clear skies, led to a rethink.

Instead I made arrangements for the four of us to go to Normandy, reasoning that the area of totality in France would be much larger than in England, and their population was a little smaller. In addition, the long range forecast showed a somewhat better (about 50%) chance of clear sky. Further attractions of this area were that Barry was keen to take the opportunity to view the ancient Bayeux Tapestry depicting the battle of Hastings of 1066AD, and Helen wanted to visit French friends who live in that area.

The journey

On the evening of Monday, 9th August Barry and Helen arrived in Luton, Bedfordshire to spend the night with us, and at 5:30a.m. the next morning we set off for the Eurotunnel. We were booked to travel on the 8:09 train, but, having arrived a little early, were allowed on the 7:51 instead. No view during the crossing of course, but so fast and convenient. Waved straight through customs, passport control consisted of waving our passports through the window as we drove non-stop past and onto the train. Just a short wait, then a mere 35 minute journey, following which it was direct onto the French Autoroute. By 1:00p.m. French time (midday English time) we were at our hotel in Rouen (without breaking a speed limit!).

Since Rouen was close to the edge of the totality zone (just inside), we went out that evening to find a spot near the centre of the zone, which would also offer the opportunity to see how at least some wildlife reacted. We picked the outskirts of the small town of Neufchâtel-en-Bray, about 20 miles north-east of Rouen along the Autoroute. The spot we had chosen from the map proved ideal, a tiny country lane on a hilltop adjacent to an exit from the Autoroute.

Preliminaries

The Wednesday morning started bright, with quite a lot of fluffy clouds in an otherwise blue sky. On arriving at our chosen spot some two hours before the eclipse was due to become total, and a good hour before first contact, we found 20-30 car-loads of people had had the same idea, while on the other side of the township another Autoroute exit was jammed with cars leaving to view the eclipse from there - that area was really crowded.

An hour later many more cars had arrived in our area, and parking was becoming difficult, but everyone was in excellent humour. Some people had erected tables and seats on the roadside verge, and others likewise in adjacent fields. We had made no such preparations, but were more prepared in terms of equipment for the main event.

Equipment used

I have two tripods, one fairly large and heavy, the other lightweight and smaller. I set up my 30 X 75 Optolyth terrestrial telescope (normally used for bird-watching) on the larger tripod, with a piece of cardboard mounted on it to cast a shadow, with a piece of white card on the small tripod. The result was a fairly clear image of the sun, several inches in diameter, projected onto the white card. Naturally it had to be adjusted every few minutes as the rotation of the earth moved the image, but this was not a serious problem.

I also had available my old Minolta X400 SLR camera. For pictures of the partial phase projected on the card I used a 28-70mm zoom lens set at 70mm, and planned on switching to a 70-210mm zoom lens plus a doubler, giving 420mm, for direct shot(s) of totality.

Partial phase

During the pre-eclipse and partial eclipse phases, a group of sunspots was visible near the centre of the sun's disc, with three large spots in a row and just a suggestion of several smaller ones around them. Another small spot could be seen near the limb of the sun. I took a number of photos of the image of the partial phase, and noted that the necessary exposure time increased far faster than the human eye indicated. At this stage the weather remained unchanged, with the sun being completely obscured from time to time, sometimes for several minutes. There was probably something like 50% cloud cover provided by very broken, fairly fast moving clouds. Luck was clearly going to play a large part in what, if anything, we would see of the total phase.

Totality

I was taken by surprise by the speed of the onset of totality, which in fact occurred when the relevant part of the sky was perfectly clear. As a result my plan to remove the telescope from the tripod and replace it with the camera, with a bigger lens, just before totality was defeated. I tried a quick shot with the camera hand-held, but with a mere 70mm lens the image will be hopelessly small, and with an exposure time which must have been several seconds, it will be totally blurred. Consequently I lost some time during totality in changing the camera lens and mounting it on the tripod, but I managed a picture of the "diamond ring" effect at the end of totality, using a 210mm lens plus a doubler to give 420mm, although there apears to have been some movement during the exposure - whether it is camera shake or earth rotation I'm not sure.

Diamond ring effect

Another surprise was the suddenness of the appearance of the corona, which seemed to shoot out from the ring of fire around the black moon as the initial "diamond ring" faded. Another surprise was an effect I had not heard of. Helen was the only one among us to see it well, but her shout attracted the rest of us to catch just a glimpse of a weird wave pattern moving rapidly along the road immediately after the "diamond ring". Helen described it afterwards as being like the ripple patterns left on a sandy beach after the tide goes out, but moving rapidly. None of us was looking at the ground to see if the wave pattern reappeared as a prelude to the final "diamond ring".

Two very firm conclusions I reach are that mere words (even supported by photos or film) are inadequate to describe the unique experience, and the difference between 99.9% eclipse and 100% is far, far greater than that between 99.9% and no eclipse at all. It was over all too quickly.

Other observations

There was not much wildlife about to observe. There were some skylarks singing - we saw nothing of them after the eclipse became almost total and the light faded, nor of the buzzard which had been circling some way off. Another incidental observation was that the temperature dropped rapidly during the 10-15 minutes prior to totality, and rose more slowly afterwards. The reaction of the watching people was to produce a great cheer at the moment the sun disappeared, followed by almost total silence (apart from Helen's shout). Afterwards some quickly drove off, while others began their picnics. Several families, mostly French but also one English, accepted the invitation to see the image from my telescope (both before and after totality), and the group nearest to us insisted on taking group photos of us all, as well as taking some of the telescope image. Several names and addresses were exchanged, and we were invited to share the picnic (we politely declined). Altogether a very happy occasion.

The final act was a complete change in the cloud pattern within a minute of the end of totality. First a thin, "mackerel sky", then a few minutes later much thicker cloud totally obscured the sky. During that first minute I noticed that the planet Venus remained visible, showing that what appeared to human eyes to be almost normal sunlight was in fact still much reduced.

Other places

We learned that evening that even a mere 20 miles away in Rouen, totality had been hidden by cloud, while further west in Brittany professional astronomers with a considerable investment in time spent setting up equipment had experienced heavy rain, according to a French TV broadcast on the subject.

I had recorded the live TV program on the eclipse on BBC1, which showed the British mainland view of totality was confined to a few seconds when the cloud cleared momentarily at Newquay in north Cornwall. A hazy view through thin cloud was seen from the Channel Island of Alderney. The BBC had taken the precaution of mounting a stabilised camera on a Hercules aircraft, so they were able to broadcast live pictures of the event. The group of sunspots was just faintly visible on my TV screen, but would probably not have been noticed by anyone not knowing they were there.

A final frustration

A final frustration came some time after returning home. My camera developed a fault while unloading the film, resulting in the total destruction of many of the images. Fortunately enough of the diamond ring effect photo survived to display above.


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