Voyages to Darkness — In Search of Eclipses

“It is the very error of the moon;
She comes more near the earth than she was wont
And makes men mad.”  —  Othello, Shakespeare

[Canberra - African Eclipse Cruise]

In 1972 the Pedas/Sigler family of educators bridged the academic world with the needs of a depressed cruise market to spawn a new industry — theme cruises replete with shipboard lecturers and educational pursuits.

Launching a ship to rendezvous with a total eclipse at sea was not smooth sailing. In the early '70s, travel agents politely demurred from promoting a ship of fools. Nor were the Planetariums quick to relinquish their sacrosanct eclipse to 'cosmic pied pipers' seeking to make a buck off of God.

The world's first educational theme cruise aboard the Greek Line's Olympia revamped the 'snooze-and-booze' cruise substituting lectures on sun spots, shadow bands, and Bailey's Beads for bingo and deck quoits.

The Olympia's eclipse chasers were not the ‘fun in the sun’ cruise clientele. Although well travelled 85 per cent of them (including the Pedas-Sigler organizers) had never booked a cruise prior to Eclipse '72. They were eclectic, spirited, adventuresome voyagers who shared a special sense of curiosity and wonder. Beckoned by the allure of a rendezvous with the cosmos they tuned into the celestial schedule to capture for their memories a total eclipse of the sun.

Although scientists have travelled to eclipses for over 200 years, their expeditions were for scientific observation. The hardships of travel to remote areas where eclipses normally occurred, the expense, and the risk of being 'clouded-out' discouraged the pursuit of the eclipse to all but serious astronomy buffs.

The 1972 Voyage to Darkness Pedas-Sigler eclipse cruise, with 834 passengers (and one cat) aboard proved to be the benchmark for conveying large numbers of enthusiasts and professional astronomers to the best vantage point to intercept eclipse totality.

The eclipse of August 11, 1999 was the most widely observed eclipse in history. In addition to being easily accessible by land, numerous eclipse bound ships, including four Pedas/Sigler Voyages to Darkness transported thousands of viewers into into the path of eclipse totality.

The Pedas-Sigler siren call, ushering in the age of shipboard astronomy, had been heard.

The saga of launching the world's first eclipse cruise.

Sputnik — October 4, 1957
The launching of Sputnik by the U.S.S.R. was a pivotal event for Ted Pedas who was taking an elective astronomy course at Ohio's Youngstown State University. His twice-retired professor, Doc Dusty, told the class he “Didn't know what was happening,” but he knew that “Everything was about to change.” Pedas switched his major to astronomy.


July 20, 1963—Eclipse over Canada
Pedas and his sister and brother-in-law travelled to Quebec to witness their first eclipse. Clouds obscured the eclipse — but not their enthusiasm for viewing the next solar spectacle.


1970—An Eclipse festival in Eclipse, Virginia?
[Signpost-Crittenden] The idea of a solar eclipse celebration began - not in the form of a cruise but as a festival. Ted Pedas, his sister Marcy and brother-in-law Phil Sigler planned to stage an Eclipse '70 festival in Eclipse, Va. (population 150)— a town which fell within the 80-mile wide eclipse path.

Eclipse frolicking on the banks of the Chukatuck river? “Not so fast,” said the locals, who demanded a security check at the drawbridge of all incoming 'heliophiles'. Contract negotiations broke down over the provision that Pedas-Sigler would not admit into Eclipse, Virginia persons who advocated the “overthrow of the federal government,” were “disrespectful to the flag,” or had long hair.

[Signpost-Eclipse Ave] Margaret Forrest, the town's oldest citizen, made it plain that the event, at least in Eclipse, called for proper behavior. “This is the Lord's work and people shouldn't be cutting up about it,” she said. The 85-year-old grandmother remembered the 1900 eclipse. “I was standing on the porch holding my daddy's hand. The chickens all went to roost. My mother came running out of the kitchen and said 'Lord, have mercy'.”

The path of totality for the 1970 eclipse moved northward from Mexico and at Norfolk it jutted out to sea passing over Nantucket. Efforts to stage the eclipse festival on the Massachusetts island met with strong opposition. An influx of 'Woodstock-type' hippies paying homage to the eclipse, and their organizers, were persona non grata. While retreating from Nantucket via ferry the Pedas-Sigler entrepreneurs had an idea. Why not charter the ferry on which they were sailing — or a ship — and sail it into the path of an eclipse?

The idea of intercepting totality at sea was born. The cosmic-thinkers put in a wake up call for the eclipse of July 10, 1972.


An Eclipse Odyssey

Pedas and Sigler began planning for the 1972 Nova Scotia eclipse but found that none of the first eight shipping lines they approached were interested in sailing almost a thousand miles into the cold North Atlantic. Cruise ships in the early '70s were sailing half-empty. The escalating price of oil had depressed the industry — nevertheless only the Greek Line offered the eclipse chasers a glimmer of hope. “Fill a ship in four months,” said Ami Vassiliadis, “and the Olympia is yours.”

“We scraped together our life savings,” said Marcy Sigler, who taught school in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. “My paycheck went for ads in Sky and Telescope magazine. Phil's check bought space in Natural History and Ted bought ads in Scientific American.” Their gamble paid off. The Greek Line said afterwards that the Olympia had attracted record-setting revenues — a fact not gone unnoticed by the competing steamship companies which had been quick to turn down the “ill conceived eclipse cruise” proposal.

It was an odd mix — the proud Greek shipowners steeped in maritime tradition and the novice ‘professors’ who emerged from their ivory tower with a brainstorm idea which was to revolutionize the cruise industry — and revitalize the Greek Line's sagging bookings.

[Scripps Oceonographic] Initial efforts by Pedas-Sigler to transform the Olympia into a floating university received little support from the skeptical Greek Line executives who chuckled at the notion of converting the ship's bars into classrooms. They looked askance when Pedas-Sigler announced plans to hoist aboard massive telescopes and oceanographic equipment to search for unknown planets and study ocean life during totality.

Rumor began circulating in the cruise industry of the luxury ‘lunar liner’ poised to chase the moon's shadow in the Northeast's erratic, unpredictable and mostly bad weather. The Greek Line's Vassiliadis treading cautiously in uncharted waters imposed limitations on the Voyage to Darkness organizers including issuing an edict that no ‘creatures’ were to be brought aboard the Olympia (presumably to eliminate sacrifices to Helios).

[Penny in Venice] This caused a tidal wave of opposition from Marcy Pedas Sigler, the teacher-turned-entrepreneur who was booking the eclipse cruise from her Englewood New Jersey home — a task which the shipping line, doubtful that bookings would materialize, relegated to her.

Neatly logged in the berthing book were the solar sailing's first passengers — two spinsters and their cat, Penny Nicol. The well travelled feline, now consigned by the Greek Line to the status of ‘creature’, was the focus of the annual Nicol Christmas card — Penny on a gondola in Venice, Penny at the Pyramids, and soon …Penny on the world's first eclipse cruise.

As the bookings mounted so did the tension between Greek Line and the Eclipse '72 - Voyage to Darkness organizers. Mayhem broke out at a meeting three months prior to sailing. A frustrated Dr. Sigler demanded attention be given to devising a plan to minimize the ship's vibration (to enable eclipse photography from a stable platform) and to establish a complex satellite network aboard ship to receive up-to-the-minute weather data. Ted Pedas reiterated his myriad needs for implementing the onboard education program and eclipse related activities. Marcy pressed her campaign to upgrade the cat from ‘creature’ to ‘passenger’ status.

The Greek Line responded with an agenda of their own. Citing book and verse from a parched maritime law manual they advised Pedas-Sigler that darkness on the high seas (such as, during a total eclipse) would require the ship's Captain to turn on the lights. Furthermore, with the Olympia fully booked and the eclipse dollars safely ensconced in the shipping line's coffers the irksome and irritating Pedas-Sigler team was disposable — herewith the Greek Line's Vassiliadis was in command!

Not to be undone by the shipping dynasty's ‘maritime man’ Marcy (who, by Homer's account, traces her  lineage to the Argonauts whose search for the golden fleece landed them on her mother's island of Limnos) had a surprise of her own. She whipped out and distributed to the Greek Line executives a letter which she threatened to mail. Addressed to the 834 eclipse passengers it read in part, “Dear Eclipse'72 Passenger … We regret to inform you that the Eclipse Cruise has been cancelled. We find ourselves unable to deliver the promises made in our Eclipse '72 - Voyage to Darkness brochure...”

Greek Line had secured the eclipse deposits but the berthing book, the only written record of passenger names, addresses and cabin assignments, was in Marcy's possession. She had been the liaison between passenger and eclipse cruise. It was with Marcy the eclipseophiles exchanged thoughts of shadow bands, diamond rings, Bailey's beads … and how to get the cat aboard.

Bedlam reigned at Greek Line's Pearl Street offices. A frantic search yielded the implausible - the eclipse passengers were known only to Sigler.


1972—Voyage to Darkness eclipse cruise
Destination — Totality!

On July 8, 1972, the world's first eclipse cruise departed from New York's Pier 97, aboard Greek Line's Olympia Eclipse '72 - Voyage to Darkness with 834 passengers (and one cat, Penny Nicol) to achieve a spectacular rendezvous with eclipse totality 900 miles in the North Atlantic. The ship had positioned itself under a 'hole' in the sky avoiding the inclement weather which clouded out land based eclipse observers. The advantage of the Pedas-Sigler eclipse cruise was 'maneuverability' and the utilization of weather satellite data to position the ship under clear skies.


Popularizing the 1972 Eclipse — Carly Simon — You're So Vain

There was an explosion of publicity surrounding the launching of Eclipse '72, the world's first shipborne eclipse adventure. The notion of basking in the moon's shadow was featured in the press with trendy headlines such as Moon Game for Jet Set, A Cruise Is Where the Eclipse Is At, and Attention: Everyone on Deck to View the Eclipse.

‘You flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the Total Eclipse of the Sun’ sang Carly Simon. Her 1972-73 #1 Billboard hit You're so Vain captured the media's fascination with the solar eclipse of July 10, 1972. (By the way, the eclipse in Nova Scotia was all but clouded-out. Had Carly Simon's eclipse chaser opted for the eclipse bound Voyage to Darkness'72, he would have evaded bad weather to intercept the eclipse at sea.)


1973— A Rendezvous with Totality aboard P&O's Canberra and Cunard's Adventurer

On June 30, 1973, the Canberra—Voyage to Darkness'73 with 2600 people on board rendezvoused off the African coast with the longest eclipse (7 minutes) in modern times and sailed onto the front page of The New York Times.The prolific science writer and shipboard lecturer Isaac Asimov wrote about his experience in his autobiography In Joy Still Felt.

To accommodate those waitlisted for the sold out Canberra the organizers chartered a second ship, Cunard Adventurer—Caribbean Eclipse'73, which with 800 passengers aboard intercepted the June 30, 1973 eclipse 1200 miles in the mid-Atlantic.


1973—Canberra's Eclipse Cruise — a Rescue-at-Sea
A dramatic rescue at sea aboard the Canberra followed the eclipse. Passengers and students combined their skills to improvise a defibrillator for emergency treatment of a stricken seaman who was removed from a freighter in the mid-Atlantic. To assemble the instrument the passengers used capacitors from the ship's antenna system, plates from a television camera tripod, screwdrivers with insulated handles, diodes from the kit of a Florida skywatcher and power determinations from a passenger's pocket calculator. Science Editor Walter Sullivan documented the rescue in The New York Times.


1995—Asian Eclipse Cruise — a Rescue-at-Sea
Another rescue-at-sea occurred in the South China Sea aboard the Asian'95 Voyage to Darkness. An Indonesian fisherman had fallen off the back of his fishing boat while pulling in a heavy bucket of water for bathing. He was treading water when spotted by a quick thinking eclipse cruise passenger who tossed him a life jacket. The eclipse bound ship was maneuvered to extract him from the water. Singapore immigration was contacted but they refused to allow the fisherman to get off the ship for repatriation with Indonesia — because he didn't have a passport.


Shipborne Astronomy — Science and Culture at Sea — the solar eclipse revolutionizes the Cruise industry

In 1972 the Voyage to Darkness organizers — a family of five educators: astronomer Ted Pedas, historian Phil Sigler, and public school teachers George Pedas, Tom Pedas, and Marcy Pedas Sigler — had bridged the academic world and the needs of a depressed shipping market to spawn a new industry — educational theme cruises replete with shipboard lecturers and educational pursuits.

[Planetarium Directors] They proved wrong the Olympia's Captain's proclamation that “No one would ever attend a lecture on a cruise ship.”

Launching an eclipse cruise was not smooth sailing. In the early '70s, travel agents politely demurred from promoting what they perceived as the ship of fools. “Sail North into the frigid Atlantic instead of the sunny Caribbean for two minutes of totality, and risk being blinded by the eclipse?” they scoffed. Nor were the Planetariums quick to relinquish their sacrosanct eclipse to 'cosmic pied pipers' seeking to make a buck off of God.

[Neil Armstrong, Phil Sigler, Scott Carpenter] To compensate for the travel agent's lack of support, the Pedas-Sigler entrepreneurs devised a plan enlisting the cooperation of Planetariums and Science Museums as 'Participating Agents'. The Director of the Fels Planetarium (Philadelphia) was first to see the merits of this unique revenue raising proposal. Rochester's Strasenburgh and Chicago's prestigious Adler quickly followed suit. New York's stodgy Hayden joined forces a year later in endorsing the deck of a ship as a viable alternative to terra firma in observing and photographing the eclipse.

The Pedas-Sigler pioneers of astronomy theme cruises, in their quest for totality, had revamped the 'snooze-and-booze cruise' substituting lectures on sun spots, shadow bands, and Bailey's Beads for bingo and deck quoits. And none too soon. “Earth people," states Ted Pedas, "are indeed fortunate to live on the only planet in the solar system where three celestial bodies, the sun, moon and earth align themselves to produce solar eclipses. In eons to come, future generations will not be provided with this solar phenomenon. Tidal forces of gravity will cause the moon to slowly spiral away from the earth.”


Solar Eclipse of April 6, 647 B.C.

“Zeus, father of the Olympians,
made night from mid-day,
hiding the light of the shining Sun,
and sore fear came upon men.”
 —  Archilochus


The sun god, Helios, proved much friendlier to the Pedas-Sigler modern day Hellenes (the Pedas family is of Greek descent) than to their predecessor, Icarus, who dared to sail too close to the sun. The wrath of Olympus when day turns into unearthly night had been appeased.

Archilochus would be pleased!

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