A Chariot of Fire

A Chariot of Fire

‘Sunshine came softly,
Through my window today.’

Donovan: Sunshine Superman, 1966

One of the most crucial aspects of running a top-class cruise company is understanding the weather that affects our lives in so many ways. We have often written about all the changeable influences that combine to form weather patterns, and we lean on the meteorologists for their insight and predictions. Living in the 21st century we have become accustomed to the use of technology: weather prediction has changed from the being the purview of prophets and village elders to an (almost) accurate science. With hundreds of weather satellites lurking above the planet in geosynchronous orbits sending photographs and other detailed information, thousands of weather stations dotted around the planet measuring, counting, assessing and observing, and powerful computers to assimilate and interpret all this information we should be assured of accurate predictions. A far cry from the fishermen and shepherds of old who would lick a finger, stick it into the air, smell the wind and glance at the birds and pronounce “All fair until Sunday; then…aaaaarr, rain!” Although, truth be told, those gnarled forecasters were usually spot on.

As we head through spring towards summer, we look more and more to that great predictable generator of the seasons: our Sun. If there is one aspect in amongst all the weather variables, it’s the power of that star we circle around. Mind you, it tends to get both blame and praise in equal measure for the bulk of our weather misfortunes and suntans. “Sun’s hot today!” or “Freezing cold! Where’s the sun?” are cries from the heart, but misdirected: Sol (to give it its original, and astronomical name) is constant. It is our home planet Earth and the wrappings that encompass her surface that are responsible for all the weather variations, and as if they weren’t enough, we humans are doing our level best to disturb the natural order of things by generally polluting land, sea and atmosphere.

The sun has been around for 4.6 billion years, give or take a week or two. Scientists believe it formed from the collapse of a previous sun (or suns), that had reached the end of their life cycle and exploded through supernovas into a giant molecular clouds of gas and other elements. These clouds coalesced over time through gravity and (cutting the process short) eventually reignited. Sunshine bathed the planets, and a few billion years later, here we are, We weren’t alone in this, of course; many of our neighbouring suns were born through the same process.

And, of course, in around five billion years (give or take another week or two), exactly the same thing is likely to happen again. Looking at pictures taken by the Hubble telescope we can observe similar creations occurring across the universe, in formations like the Carina and Orion Nebulas. ‘Star nurseries’ are continually forging ahead with the recreation of stars, and it is mind-boggling – to say the least – to consider that our beautiful sun is one of five billion or so suns (give or take half a dozen) in our local galaxy, one of at least 200 billion galaxies (give or take 10 billion or so.) More stars in the visible universe, to quote a reference book, than all the grains of sand on planet Earth. Pop down to Clifton and start counting when you have a minute. It will help put things in perspective.

But back to our sun: it’s the only one we need to worry about. Or not worry about, come to think of it. Apart from the odd solar flare, it’s doing it’s level best to keep us comfortable, orbiting here at 150 000 000 km from its centre. Light from the surface of the sun takes 8 minutes and 19 seconds to reach us, and that light is generated through the process of nuclear fusion, converting 600 tonnes of hydrogen into helium – every second. That’s not a typo; and to give an idea of the sun’s size, that energy can take up to 170, 000 years to reach the sun’s surface from point of conversion. So, if you were worrying about the sun running out of grunt earlier than predicted, you have at least 170,000 years, 8 minutes and 19 seconds to get your affairs in order. When that energy hits earth it is pretty constant at about 1368 Watts per square meter at the atmosphere, and reduced to around 1000 W/m² when it hits the ground. A lot of watts, you’ll agree, and a rather obvious choice of natural energy that we could all harness with a little more effort and focus, no doubt.

The sun, as would be expected, has occupied a very important place in the history of man, and religions around the planet worshipped the sun in various guises; in point of fact the Hindu religion still worships the sun as a deity. To the Egyptians the sun was the god Ra, carried around the heavens in a solar barque; to the Greeks the sun was Helios, carried by a chariot drawn by fiery horses. Greek astronomers, when unfettered by religious dogma, recognised the earth as one of the seven ‘wanderers’ (Greek planetes) that orbited the sun, and named the days of the week after them. The Romans made the seventh day of the sun the day of their own sun god, and this was in turn adopted by the fledgling Christian faith as their sabbath and identified by them by a symbol of light, a pagan tradition and intriguingly one of the few Christian symbols not to originate from Judaism. The ‘unconquered sun’, or Sol Invictus, was the Roman celebration of the Winter Solstice, and this event was the forerunner of the date that became, ultimately, Christmas. And so it goes on; a little research will take you down many a sunny path.

At Waterfront Charters we love the 1000 W/m² bit that bathes us the most: it’s the warmth that fills our hearts, heats our ocean and creates the wind that fills our sails. We respect all weathers, and operate under stringent safety measures, but can say that there is very little that beats a Sailing in Bay adventure aboard our twin-masted, full-sailed schooner Esperance when the sun is shining and the breeze is stiff – check it out on the website.

Whatever cruise you choose; under rising, midday or setting sun, we guarantee you an hour or two of pure fun. It’s what we do, and we are getting pretty good at it after thirty years at the V&A Waterfront.