“Behold him setting in his western skies,John Dryden; Absalom and Achitophel (1681)
The shadows lengthening as the vapours rise.”
As we write this blog, a Terminator is approaching. Given the hype around that word thanks to the films starring the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the thought of terminators appearing probably raises a nervous chill in most human beings. No need to panic: the terminator we are referring to is more correctly called the solar terminator, and this is an event rather than an almost indestructible piece of future robotry. At precisely 13h31 on September the 22nd the sun will be directly above the equator, and the northern and southern hemispheres will both receive near identical amounts of the sun’s rays. More commonly known as the equinox, it is the time of the year that the sun starts heading towards the southern pole. We should say ‘appears’ to head, of course, given that the sun is pretty much static as far as our orbit is concerned, and it is the eccentricity of that orbit that creates the seasons.
Equinox is derived from the Latin aequinoctium, from aequus (equal) and nox (night), and this is pretty much a self-explanatory word. Technically speaking, equinox is the day when the sun rises at due east and sets due west, and this was of great assistance to navigators in pre-GPS days. In fact, it’s probably true to say that the ‘primitive’ cultures were far more aware of the celestial changes that govern our seasons and days and nights: they were dependant on this knowledge for virtually everything that they had to do, from agriculture to travel. In this day and age of internet access, knowledge appears to reside in the computers and phones of the populace rather than in their heads, which is probably a step backwards as far as evolution is concerned. But I digress. The date and time of the equinox is not fixed; although the earth’s orbit is entirely predictable, it is not precise. Since the Moon (and to a lesser extent the planets) causes Earth’s orbit to vary slightly from a perfect ellipse, the equinox is officially defined by the Sun’s more regular ecliptic longitude rather than by its declination. (That’s the technical definition, of course. You can always look up those terms on the internet…or just say that the earth wobbles a bit as it wanders around the sun.)
More relevant to those who are focussed on earthly rather than celestial matters is the fact that the equinoxes – there are two, after all: the other equinox is in March when the sun is meandering northwards – are quite commonly regarded as the days that signify the start of spring and autumn. Obviously spring here is autumn up north and vice versa, and this is mostly recognised these days by churches that celebrate harvest festivals on or near the date of the equinox. For the balance of the humans on the planet, it’s just another day, which I think is a pity. I had the good fortune a few years ago to be in Mount Kenya National Park – located conveniently on the equator – on the date of the equinox, and remember staring up at the sun at midday and thinking, “It’s directly over my head!”. Unfortunately my companions did not share my fascination for things celestial, so they told me to stop being an idiot; I’d blind myself. But it remains a happy memory.
Intriguingly, equinox is the one period during this time in our history when all our clever communications and navigational satellites go a bit wonky. Most of these satellites are geostationary, meaning that they are fixed in orbit above a single point on earth; for obvious reasons GPS signals must come from a stationary source if triangulation is to effective at the receiving point, and bouncing communications off a moving target would make for really interesting TV reception on the other side of the planet. So these satellites lurk above earth in what is – relatively speaking – a stationary position. During the days around the equinox the all-powerful sun is located directly temporarily behind these satellites as they orbit, and this burst of broad-spectrum radiation can overload the reception stations’ circuits with ‘noise’, and disrupt the reception. The other problem for those satellites is that the downtime in the earth’s shadow is at its longest, and being solar powered they need Sol’s rays to recharge. It’s at this point in their journeys that passengers will be happy that their captain/pilot/navigator learnt how to use a sextant when training: sometimes the old systems are the most reliable.
At Waterfront Charters equinox means a lot of things. We don’t have problems with navigation – with Table Mountain looming it’s not easy to get lost in Table Bay or on the way to Clifton. But it’s spring and the start of the wonderful summer season on our amazing fleet, and we do love showing guests the due-westerly sunset in late September. Why not book yourself a romantic post-lockdown Champagne Sunset Cruise with a significant other and watch a bi-annual event from the comfort of a luxury yacht, champagne flute in hand to salute the spring? A remarkable sunset at a remarkable time of the year.
Spring means new beginnings, and we are confident that the world will emerge fresh and ready to face up to the post-Covid-19 scourge – a cruise on the Atlantic ocean is the best possible way to feel renewed, healthy and ready to get going again!