SY ENA : steaming towards the next chapter

SY Ena, the museum’s glamorous guest and visiting vessel from February to June this year has moved on, and without too much fuss has arrived on Port Phillip in Victoria. 20 years on from the book ‘SY Ena: Aurore, HMAS Sleuth’ by Alan Deans, a new chapter is now ready to write – and the prologue is how it got there.

SY ENA coasts into Docklands, Melbourne. Photo by Jeff Malley

SY ENA coasts into Docklands, Melbourne. Photo by Jeff Malley

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The Transit of Venus

Venus in transit

Our arrival to the island was the culmination of over 24 hours of sailing. The initially projected time became possible thanks to the favorable winds. The captain had suggested 2:00 pm arrival time and at 1:53 pm we were crossing the north end of the island. It was soon clear that arriving to the area did not mean an easy transfer to land.

Anchoring was not an option and it was the Marine Park Authority that came to pick Alex and myself up. One at the time, we were transferred to land. Four meter swells made sure that no object would remain dry in the short trip. After an adventurous entry through the break, coordinated from land, we arrived to a media welcome committee.

The preparations for the Transit of Venus happened without inconvenience, no last minute lost objects or major changes. We went to sleep ready for a great day to come. By the morning, the atmosphere was less positive. The 54 knot wind gusts and horizontal rain was threatening to prevent the observations of the highly demanded planet.

With the equipment already assembled, we reached our destination but it was impossible to setup due to the weather. Instead, we set up base camp at green café, only a hundred meters from the observation site.

By the time of the first contact, at 8:40 am Lord Howe Island time, no evidence of the sun could be seen, although conditions were changing. The wind turned southerly, and hope slowly approached the island. At 10:30 am, hope became fact and the first observations became possible by using solar glasses.

We ran to set up the main telescope on a corner where it would be protected from the wind. The great work of the IT team put us online within 5 minutes and we could finally start streaming over the satellite connection. Given the wind and the unstable weather conditions, the telescope needed to be moved constantly and stable live streaming only became possible over short periods.

By 11:30 am, the wind had calmed down. We were finally able to bring the second telescope into the field. More and more locals arrived in hopes of catching a glimpse of the transit.

The now famous Vu Vu Venus, a projecting device built by Sydney Observatory, made its Lord Howe Island debut shortly before midday. By allowing several viewers to observe the transit at the same time, it quickly turned to be the favorite target for our visitors’ cameras.

Vu Vu Venus in action

The observations continued throughout the day with partial cloud cover. A final shower invited us to break camp. By the time our hopes of capturing the last two contacts were gone, a small opening in the clouds allowed us to re-stage our equipment. We were lucky to observe the planet Venus transiting for the last time in our lives.

A clear calm day would have led to better technical measurements, but the adventures of the trip on board the HMB Endeavour replica and the storm in the morning of the transit served as a reminder of the challenges of scientific observations in history.

It has been an honour to be part of this enterprise; my next adventure will begin in a month when my first child will be born. There are plenty sleepless nights ahead, although that is not a big change for an astronomer.  Thanks to all our friends following. Until next time…

The way to the Transit of Venus – Day 6

It is the 6th day on the HMB Endeavour Replica and with two days separating us from the Transit of Venus expectations are growing fast. The weather is hinting at its power, tightening its patterns and reminding us of any object not tightly secured.  Watching the few unattended items drift across the tables is a practical example of the words of Dirk, the 1st officer, about the importance of securing every object.

With a rocking ship as the setting, my first lecture was presented. A brief history of astronomy from the first naïf attempts to marry the skies with our daily lives, to our current understanding of the universe with a focus on the Transit of Venus as part of this learning process.

Despite having a fairly tired audience, everyone was kind enough to try to stay awake and many of them even succeeded. It is my intention to share everything I can about this astronomical event and astronomy in general. Casual conversations about astronomy permeate our free daily hours, all two of them.

Because this is the first sailing experience of this magnitude for many of the crew members, including myself, there is a steep learning curve and great physical strain. As the days go by, emotions shift over an increasingly wide range. Routine starts to settle and people’s core personalities start to emerge. I see this as another part of the value of this trip, it encourages all of us to develop genuine relationships and take care of one another. This also reflects well on the skill of the professional crew and the challenges of working with new members. The more time we spend together, the more respect we gain for their work.

As we approach the final opportunity for our generation to view the Transit, final preparations are commencing. The Australian National Maritime Museum and the Sydney Observatory are holding observation sessions and live streaming to give the public a chance to see this historic event. If you are going to observe it independently, make sure you do it safely. Looking at the sun without protection can be damaging for your eyes. Information about safe viewing, supervised observation sessions and live streaming can be found on either website.

As usual, it will be Dr. Alex Cook updating us on the new developments on this trip next time. I will return on the 5th of June on our arrival at Lord Howe Island. Until then …

The way to the Transit of Venus – Day 4

Dr. Alex Cook and Mr. Carlos Bacigalupo on the HMB Endeavour

The Transit of Venus is an astronomical event that happens in pairs, eight years apart and then more than 100 years of interlude until the next occurrence. In only four days, the second transit of the pair will perform for us, and it will be the last time anyone alive today will see a transit of Venus from Earth. The next one will be in the year 2117.

I am currently writing from the HMB Endeavour replica as the astronomer on the ship on its way to Lord Howe Island where we will set up an observing station for the Transit of Venus.  The last transit of the previous pair, in 1882, was observed from this island. The place was Transit Hill, a beautiful landmark that looks east, easily accessible if you are up for a hike.

It is a humbling experience to be part of an expedition that resembles the great voyages of the eighteenth century.  It quickly becomes clear that a ship of this nature needs to work as a single entity. It is an organic behaviour where men and ship act in perfect synchronicity moving towards a destiny. Every man has a task, and every place a reason to be. It is only the experience of the professional crew that enables the rest of us to be part of this adventure.

Our setting on the island will be a short distance north from Transit Hill, at the location of the old meteorological station.  We will stream live over a satellite connection for the Australian National Maritime Museum. For visitors to the site we will install two other instruments: a telescope for direct observation and a projection screen where the image of the Sun will be visible to a wider number of viewers.

Other activities are planned for the school and the Lord Howe Island Museum. I will be sharing the astronomical details of the event.  Dr. Alex Cook will hold a series of talks throughout  the day at the Museum. It will be Alex himself writing tomorrow and updating you with the latest news from our trip. I will be back in two days, until then.

The way to the Transit of Venus

There are many ways to start a day. You can wake up, take the train and do your daily routine and that can be a great day. Alternatively, you can do what I did today.  After sleeping in a hammock, I woke up to a now-familiar voice, coming from a PA system.  By the time I was fully awake I had a harness on and was ready to climb 20 meters. It was not part of a dream; I spent the morning sailing on HMB Endeavour.  I am Carlos Bacigalupo and I’m the astronomer on the ship.

It was time to climb the rigging and our destiny was the fore mast.  An exciting, yet challenging, climb later I was leaning on the yard arm unfurling a sail, with an unforgettable view of Sydney Harbour. My two team-mates and I could not stop smiling at each other.  Several television helicopters circled us, recording our crossing though the heads for the news.

This adventure is only a small part of an expedition to observe the Transit of Venus on Lord Howe Island, the last time the planet Venus will cross the disk of the Sun for over a hundred years. The next transit will be in the year 2117. To embrace this opportunity we will stream live over the internet this June 6th, 2012.

It is our second day on the ship and we are heading to Lord Howe Island. It is an expedition undertaken in commemoration of Captain James Cook’s original voyage in the ship upon which this vessel is modelled – a voyage to observe the Transit of Venus in Tahiti.  As an astronomer, it is a privilege to be part of such an expedition. Dr. Alex Cook, the historian on the ship, and I are bringing together the two sides of this unique adventure that combines a rare astronomical event with a major historical one.

Learning how to sail a traditional tall ship is an amazing experience.  It is only when you are unfurling the sails from the top of the mast that you become really aware what it means to sail a traditional vessel, and how much skill and work it takes to keep her sailing.

The 18th-century flavour of the trip, and the excitement of observing the Transit of Venus, permeates every moment and I am looking forward to the next chapter.  It will be Dr. Cook sharing his side of this experience tomorrow.  Bye for now, Carlos Bacigalupo

Meet Inger Sheil, our in-house Titanic expert

Inger SheilMeet Inger Sheil, the personal assistant to the museum’s director and  Titanic researcher. Over the next week, Inger will recall an epic journey of discovery and research that’s occupied much of her life… We hope you enjoy.

Spending a childhood on Sydney’s northern beaches, the sea was a part of daily life. My grandmother shared my taste for documentaries, and together we’d watch Jacques Cousteau explore the world’s oceans. The first shipwreck I encountered on screen, however, was not the one that can lay claim to being the most infamous of all, but the more recent Andrea Dorea. As it lay in depths accessible to scuba divers, I watched in fascination as they explored the submerged wreck, and listened to the dramatic stories of survivors who described the terrible collision that sank her in 1956 off Nantucket, Massachusetts.

It was this human element that was to draw me to the Titanic some years later when I was introduced to the story of that great tragedy of the Belle Époque. A second-grade school friend showed me a book, and the outline of the famous story began to solidify for me – the lack of sufficient lifeboats, the ‘unsinkable’ reputation, the wealthy who were able to take lifeboat places when the third-class passengers could not. It would be many years before I found that the truth was not quite so simple, but the broad brushstrokes were there. Tucked into my childhood ephemera is a sketch I made in the journal I kept as a seven year old. Stick figures play out the story on a ship pitched at a dramatic 75 degrees to the sea’s surface, with terrified passengers and crew handing small children down to mothers in lifeboats. A sequel illustration of the scene ashore shows dripping survivors demanding their money back from ticket agents. Growing up, I picked up books on the subject where I could. I had just moved to Singapore when the Titanic was rediscovered in 1985. The challenges of a new school in a new country couldn’t compete with the fascination of the Time magazine cover painting of the lost ship on the ocean floor. With my interest reignited, I was able to locate such classics as Walter Lord’s vividly narrated A Night to Remember. But access to information was limited to some books and the occasional television program. No one in my immediate circle shared the fascination.

All this changed in 1996 when I first gained access to the internet. It enabled me to track down and order books and magazines on the subject from around the world, and to contact other enthusiasts. My bookshelf was soon creaking with the works of over 80 years of writing on the subject, and I became absorbed in online discussions about every aspect of the ship, from the minutiae of the lives of those connected with it to the placement of its rivets.

In fact it was the social history that most interested me. It was not so much the passengers – that cross-section of Edwardian British and American society along with immigrants from around the globe – but rather her crew that drew me in. These were the men and women for whom Titanic wasn’t a means of flitting from one continent to the other or a vehicle to a new life in a foreign land, but a career and a way of life on the sea.

– Inger Sheil