Transit of Venus: The Historian’s Blog (4)

For those who have been following this adventure from the beginning, and for those who are still on the ship, this is an account of what happened on Lord Howe Island …

It was a hazardous process getting to land.  The swell was so high that the zodiac that collected us from the ship was nearly overwhelmed coming through the surf into Ned’s beach.  It was only the skill and determination of the Endeavour crew, together with that of the welcome party, that made it possible for us to land.

It had been an extraordinary journey getting to Lord Howe, and events on the island continued that pattern.  We awoke on the morning of 6 June to extreme weather conditions.  Gale-force winds ripped across the island, the clouds opened and rain tumbled down.  There was metre-high surf in the lagoon.  As the Endeavour lurched wildly in the sea on the horizon, it looked for all-the-world as though our observation plans would be a wash-out.  After six days of sailing in often fierce conditions, it seemed we’d chosen the wrong day for Lord Howe.  As Carlos and a team from the National Maritime Museum went to stake out the observation site, I went to the Museum to give a lecture.  We rehearsed some of the many stories of those whose efforts to catch the transit over the centuries had come to nothing.   I tried to convince myself and the audience of the merits of noble failure.  As it turned out, I shouldn’t have bothered.

We were unable to catch the beginning of the transit.  Attempts to raise a marquee nearly resulted in an impromptu hang-gliding excursion.  But as the morning wore on, an opening in the clouds appeared.  Within minutes, Carlos and the I.T. technicians had the telescopes set and the images streaming to the mainland.  It was a miracle of improvised efficiency. 

As the weather cleared a little, groups of residents and tourists began to gather to take part in the observations.  The excitement grew.  The wind was still blowing strong.  Gusts periodically shook the equipment, but the tracking of the telescope remained true, and the footage was saved for posterity.   As the afternoon wore on it became clear that the event had attracted significant media interest across Australia.  A string of satellite calls came in.  By the end of the day, all involved were exhausted but happy.  The nature of our voyage, and the difficulties of the day, made the view of that small black disc on the large orange disc seem so much more precious.  The quest to understand space and the exploration of the Earth seemed fused, as they have been for hundreds of years.

The following day, the 7th of June, we went to the school to have a chat with the kids about the science and history of the transit of Venus.  Their engagement and knowledge were evident in a series of fabulous questions.  The Maritime Museum donated one of the telescopes to the local community.   It was a gesture of thanks for the many ways in which the islanders as a group, from the school children to the governing Authority, had helped to make the event both possible and memorable.  

As the Endeavour sailed over the horizon for Sydney in the morning, we were g

The open-air observatory

rateful to the people and the vessel that had brought us to that place, and to the good fortune that had allowed us to be part of this historic moment.  Flying back to Sydney, I thought of the challenges we’d faced in observing the transit in this remote place in the 21st century.  How much more remarkable, then, were the achievements of those who saw the transit from the Endeavour 243 years ago.

Those of us on the island wish good sailing to those still on the ship.  Thanks to all of you for the memories.

The Lord Howe Island School

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