Over the past thirty years, I've made several successful eclipse chases — last-minute dashes to escape clouds threatening to obliterate the spectacle of the Moon obliterating the Sun — but none were as hectic and heart thumping as the one during the March 9, 2016, total solar eclipse.
My partner Deborah Carter and I began planning for that event a year in advance. The March 9th path of totality swept across parts of Indonesia and the Pacific Ocean. Weather studies led us to select Ternate, a small volcanic cone jutting from the sea in northern Indonesia, as the prime viewing location. We arrived four days before totality, and, despite an atmospheric "monkey wrench" (El Niņo), we enjoyed cloudless bliss until the day before totality.
That morning we awoke at dawn to partly cloudy skies. The once brisk trade winds had stopped, and the air felt muggy and hot. By late afternoon, storm clouds had gathered, only to unleash torrents of rain that lasted until midnight. Figuring the worst was over, we went to bed feeling cautiously optimistic — only 8 1/2 hours to go before the partial phases of the eclipse were to begin, and the rains had stopped.
When eclipse morning dawned clear, we cheered and rushed to the hotel's roof to set up our cameras, filters, and tripods. Two new friends from Java (Adrian and Heni Smith) joined us to watch first contact under a cloudless sky. About 20 minutes into the event, however, I saw a dark gray mass building on the eastern horizon. The mass turned into broken cloud, which began creeping toward the Sun at an uncomfortable rate. About 10 minutes later I saw the first cloud fragment brush past the Sun.
Deborah noticed my concern and asked what I thought.
I asked our new friends if they had a car.
I suggested we leave.
Deborah asked when.
"Now!" I replied.
We had everything packed in a flash and took an elevator to the ground level. Adrian got the car, we stuffed it with gear, crammed ourselves in, and made a mad dash toward blue sky.
But first we had to negotiate a maze of one-way streets jammed with motorbikes, cars, and crisscrossing pedestrians. Precious minutes passed before we got onto the main road. A nail-biting five-mile sprint took us to the southern edge of the island, where clouds still covered the Sun — just barely — we were literally right on the edge.
Fifteen minutes to totality.
But we had nowhere else to go ... except to the water. We saw a beach beyond the cliff, and Deborah had sighted an access road to it nearby. We made a five-point turn, zipped down the road, slipped into the alley, and bounced into a little seaside village.
Still not good enough; clouds continued to hide the Sun.
Ten minutes to totality.
Aha! There were boats and people up ahead. Heni swiftly negotiated with happy locals as we waded out to a narrow wooden fishing boat with pontoons.
Six minutes to totality.
After removing a canopy, we got on the boat, and the owners started to paddle.
My heart sank.
Deborah asked if the boat had a motor.
It did, but the tide was out, so they had to push beyond the reef.
Three minutes to totality.
Seconds felt like hours. I pleaded that they start the motor. They agreed.
After a few tugs on the cord, the one-cylinder engine coughed to life, and we chugged southward at a possum's pace.
Kluck ... kluck... kluck....
We were traveling at about the same speed as the advancing cloud edge, which just covered the Sun. Another vital minute passed without gain.
Then I noticed a hole forming in the clouds. Gesturing, I stood up and shouted, "Head west!" After hurtful moments of confusion, the crew finally understood and set off on the new course.
Seconds before totality, we saw the Sun break free of cloud. We began whooping as the diamond ring formed, the Sun winked out, and the gossamer petals of the Sun's corona blossomed into view. After that, emotion overwhelmed thought. I'm not sure if sanity ever returned.
Thanks to our combined efforts, we watched totality for nearly three minutes through a magnificent hole in the clouds.
The lesson: if you truly want to maximize your chances of seeing this rare event, don't rely on the luck of the devil; if clouds threaten, chase blue skies as if the devil were chasing you!
Stephen James O'Meara is an award-winning visual observer, whose writings, lectures, and numerous books on amateur astronomy have inspired observers across the globe to see the sky in new and wonderful ways. A contributing editor for Astronomy magazine, Stephen is an avid "eclipse chaser", having witnessed a dozen total solar eclipses dating back to 1959 (when he was 3 years old).