Of Celestial Wanderers and Stationary Stars

‘We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow…’

Immigrant Song; Led Zeppelin (Robert Plant and Jimmy Page), 1970

At 03h00 on the morning of the 21st June, the sun stood still. Nothing to be too concerned about, mind you – it happens twice a year, every year, and has been doing so for around four and a half billion years. It’s an illusion, of course: our sun is still ambling around the centre of the galaxy at around 220 km per second, and Earth is still circling the sun at 30 km per second. It’s all relative, as Einstein famously pointed out, but when it comes to observing the seasons we still cling to the notions that our forefathers understood when explaining the nature of the universe. Standing on our seemingly stable earth, it’s quite a challenge to imagine that you are on a spinning ball that circulates a mobile star that is part of an expanding Universe. When you think about it, if the earth were perfectly smooth – no mountains or buildings – every individual human being would, in their own eyes, be standing at the highest point on Earth with the seven billion other people all below their standpoint. The song ‘Sitting on top of the world, just rolling along…’ was perfectly correct in its assumption. As we said above – it’s all relative, but you will always be on top.

The 21st June was, of course, the June Solstice (from the Latin solstitium; Sol – sun – and stitus – to stand still),when the sun – as perceived from our earthly viewpoint –  reached it’s most northerly point in the heavens. It was the shortest day of the year in terms of sunlight in the southern hemisphere; here in Cape Town we had all of 9 hours and 53 minutes of sun. By comparison, Lulea, in Sweden had 23 hours and 4 minutes, and Inuvik in Canada had a full house – 24 hours of sunlight. Dunedin in New Zealand had a little less sun time than us at 8 hours and 39 minutes, and if you were taking some time off in Antarctica, you wouldn’t have seen the sun at all apart from a gentle light at midday. Those heavenly cycles, so mysterious to our ancestors, and the cause for a lot of heavy building in places like Stonehenge, are now completely understood: it’s simply because Earth has a rakish tilt in its axis of rotation of 22.44˚, and this obliquity of the ecliptic – to use its formal name – causes the northern hemisphere to tilt towards the sun for six months and the southern hemisphere for the other six. Those people who still think that it’s because we are closer to the sun in summer are not worth having as friends.

The Solstice is good news as far as we at Waterfront Charters are concerned – it means that our ever popular Champagne Sunset Cruises (and the Pre-sunset Cruise, for that matter) have reached their earliest sailing times and we can start reversing the trend.  Although having an earlier sailing time has its advantages, of course. Our Cruise and Dine combo option is extremely popular all year round, and certainly during winter one of the reasons is that an earlier sunset means an earlier meal and more time to laze over a gourmet meal back in the V&A Waterfront. From our perspective, of course, (as we keep on saying it’s all relative), longer days mean more daylight opportunities to take guests out on to the ocean. We love what we do, so the more we can do it the happier our skippers and crew members are. Short days and inclement weather make for some long Waterfront Charters faces on the quayside during winter.

On a related note, the spherical nature of earth (regardless of what those lunatic fringe Flat-earthers might say) has been extremely important to navigation over the centuries. Celestial navigation was studied and understood by the Greeks over two centuries ago; although they still operated on the principle that the earth was static and central to the universe and that the celestial bodies rotated around us, they plotted the paths of the sun, the stars and those strange wanderers, the planets. In fact the very name ‘planet’ is derived from the Greek  ‘planesthai’, meaning wanderer. What particularly bemused the astronomers was the retrograde motion of some of the planets; they would predictably come to a halt in the heavens then seemingly move backwards at certain times of the year. We now understand that the orbits of these planets take them to the far side of the sun, and relative to earth’s orbit they appear to alter course. We can’t help but think that those brilliant early astronomers knew this, but given that for most of human history any observation that was contrary to religious leaders pronouncements normally saw you lose your head, they kept quiet.

As we write this, the rains of winter fall, nurturing the earth and preparing for Spring. Why not do the same? Plan ahead for happy events and joyful occasions by checking through the Waterfront Charters cruises, boats and charter options. The sun is moving back southwards, relatively speaking; be ready for those warm days and balmy nights, sunset cruises and Clifton adventures. We have them all!