082417 Eclipse: The day the beach stood still
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Even on a crowded beach, a woman still found a quiet spot to view the eclipse on Pawleys Island.

Eclipse: The day the beach stood still

By Charles Swenson and Nikki Best
Coastal Observer

Leslie Poole arrived at 5:45 a.m. There were already a dozen cars at the public parking lot. “The south end of Pawleys is where it’s at,” she said. The Pawleys Island area resident had family visiting from Florence and Pennsylvania. They considered McClellanville, but decided “you’re just going to sit in traffic,” Poole said. Better to sit on the beach.

They were the start of a trickle that turned into a flood of spectators who came to Pawleys Island to watch this week’s total solar eclipse. One estimate put the number at 5,000, but it was only a guess. The only certainty was that they wanted a place on the beach, preferably the south end with its promise of totality.

Mike Woodell of Asheboro, N.C., who also has a home in Murrells Inlet, arrived with his family at the south end around 6 a.m. “We’re part of that million,” he said of the exodus into the zone of totality that began at Pawleys Island and extended about 70 miles south. They upgraded from paper viewing glasses to welding goggles. “You can look at it better than you can with those cheap things,” Woodell said. They cost $5 a pair at Harbor Freight. “We bought the last four pairs in Asheboro,” he said.

Mike Cahill and his family set out from New Jersey for Pawleys Island around 4 a.m. Sunday. They stayed one night with other family members already vacationing in Myrtle Beach. It was their first trip to Pawleys Island. “We wanted to stay somewhere all day,” he said, and they used Trip Advisor to select the south end, arriving around 5:30 a.m., half an hour before the official opening of the parking lot.

By sunrise, there were already swimmers in the water and kids digging in the sand. Other early risers sprawled on towels, catching up on their sleep and undisturbed by the activity around them as spectators prepared for the afternoon eclipse.

Seeking totality

Michael Gilmore, a high school physics teacher from New Jersey, used the sunrise to adjust his Sun Spotter. The device had mirrors and lenses to reflect the sunlight onto a white screen. Unlike a pinhole viewer, “you’re seeing the image, not just the shadow,” he said.

Gilmore and his family were vacationing at Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina. They headed south into the zone of totality at 4:30 a.m.

Anthony Mazzilli sat leafing though Popular Science magazine. “We’re the science nerds,” his father, Pete Mazzilli, said. They also made the trek from New Jersey. Their initial plan was to watch from Myrtle Beach, but they learned the city wasn’t in the totality.

The weather forecast called for thunderstorms and partly cloudy skies. Some wondered if sunrise would be their first and last look at the sun. “We debated that a lot,” Pete Mazzilli said. “We have a story to tell in any case.”

Amy Zimmerling wasn’t worried about missing the sun at totality because of clouds. The plunge into darkness would also be worth the trip she made from Maryland with her husband and two children. As she ate a bowl of corn flakes in their VW camper van in the parking lot, she recalled the 1991 eclipse she saw in Costa Rica. “It was really neat,” she said. “The stars came out.”

They decided on Pawleys Island as the closest place within the totality. They spent a night at Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort before heading to the island and settling into the last available parking space. “We were a little worried,” he husband, Joe Samels, said. “We thought 7 would do it.”

Marissa Ruehle and her boyfriend thought about staying home in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., to watch the eclipse. “I heard it was better in totality,” she said. They arrived Sunday in a U-Haul van, rented for $19.95 a day. It had a futon inside along with a couple of Yeti coolers.

The couple intended to go to Isle of Palms, but traffic was a concern. They spent the night at the Third Street boat landing since the south end lot doesn’t allow overnight parking. “We knew we couldn’t get a hotel room,” she said.

Hikaru Murase came from Japan via Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He and his wife 1arrived in Myrtle Beach on an 8 a.m. flight and hailed an Uber car to take them to Pawleys Island. They were dropped at the North Causeway and searched for a way to the beach as the eclipse neared.

The couple’s plan neglected one item: eclipse glasses. They were directed to Pawleys Island Town Hall where Administrator Ryan Fabbri had a handful to give out.

Annamarie and Eddie Ferris, who live at Egret Run, settled in at the new beach walkway at Davis Drive on the north end of the island just before 1 p.m. They used the same park-and-walk strategy that they use during the island’s Fourth of July parade. They also considered viewing the eclipse from McClellanville. “We didn’t want to fight the traffic,” Eddie said.

The bulk of the traffic on the island flowed to the south end. Police stopped vehicles from driving south on Springs Avenue by mid-morning after issuing scores of parking tickets along the only access road to the island’s south end.

Free parking

Jillian Hannigan met the Sitarams at noon. She was on her rental house porch cheering, “Eclipse!” Hannigan came from Wellsboro, Pa. She reserved the house on Scarborough Avenue only a month ago. “I knew about the eclipse over a year ago,” she said. “I think I paid premium price, but hey, eclipse!”

And she wasn’t left to search for parking like other visitors. After watching a black SUV try to back into several nonexistent spaces, Hannigan’s face lit up. She ran after it. A few minutes of car rearrangement later, and the Sitaram family had a place to park.

Although some drivers waved $20s from the window and called out for parking, the Sitarams got to park for free.

“We came from Mississauga,” said Diane Sitaram. “Traffic on I-95 was horrible.” She and her son, his girlfriend and a nephew traveled for two days from Ontario to reach totality.

“We were going to Washington, D.C.,” Sitaram said. That’s when they heard about the eclipse. “Once I heard about it, I wanted to see. I’m a big sky freak. I started doing research and I changed the family’s whole trip so I could be here.”

After all the traffic, Hannigan’s welcome was a stroke of luck. “No regrets though,” Sitaram said. “I’m so excited about it.”

“Eclipse,” cheered Hannigan, arms in the air as she ushered another lucky carload of travelers under her rental home. It was 12:45 p.m.

By 1 p.m., police moved the roadblock up to the South Causeway. “I said it was going to be like the Fourth of July, only more,” Mayor Bill Otis noted.

The difference was that while floats line up on the causeway for the parade, it was now spectators whose vehicles lined both sides of the road. Some families who came prepared for an afternoon at the beach faced a mile-long walk to the access at Hazard Street. As the moon made its transit across the face of the sun, the march toward the beach continued.

Gillian Butts and her husband Leighton of Wachesaw knew what to expect, but she admitted they left it a little late. It took them an hour to drive down Highway 17 from Murrells Inlet. They stopped at the eclipse party at Moe’s Bar B Que in Litchfield.

Their niece, Katy Lenderman, was confident her boyfriend, who owns Cyclopaedia, would arrive with a bike to speed the trip. In the end, they found a spot on the side of Myrtle Avenue with a view of the creek and the eclipse.

Those who reached the island’s beach found a sea of spectators spread across the low-tide beach. “It looks like Myrtle Beach,” said Sarah Zimmerman, a Town Council member, who set up an umbrella with her husband and friends at Pritchard Street.

Eyes and smartphones, all covered with protective lenses, turned toward the sun. Benjamin Mullen taped an eclipse lens over his Nikon camera. He came from Maryland with a group of fellow Civil Air Patrol cadets.

Eric Tousignant extended his vacation at Atlantic City, N.J., south to view the eclipse. He rented a 600 mm lens and an extender tube for his Canon camera. He set up his tripod on the wood timbers of the groin at Hazard Street. It drew a steady stream of viewers who wanted a closer look at the vanishing sun.

Isabel Picchianti of True Blue sought out Tousignant for advise on taking smartphone photos of the sun. “I don’t want to fry my phone. I just bought it,” she said. She and Evan Watson had planned to watch the eclipse from a boat offshore, but the trip was cancelled by a morning thunderstorm. Watson, who used to live on the island, found them a parking place at a friend’s house.

Worth the $55

Tamar Roberts was among the many who got a parking ticket. Estimates of the number of tickets varied. “We wrote a bushel of them,” Police Chief Mike Fanning said.

“I think it was worth $55 to see the eclipse,” Roberts said. Her family came from Virginia Beach. Her son Cyrus, 10, earned a Cub Scout patch for an eclipse project. He watched through eclipse glasses attached to a paper plate with a V cut out for his nose and mouth.

Nick Zincone, 9, of Myrtle Beach watched the sun disappear on a shadow box made by his dad, Anthony. It gave others nearby a way to check the progress of the eclipse without craning their necks. “He said it was dumb yesterday,” Anthony said.

Leslie Lawrence organized a trip with her sister Karen Davidek from Pittsburgh. The retired science teachers saw a partial eclipse in 1994. “Isn’t it wonderful,” Davidek said as Monday’s eclipse began. “We thought we were really taking a risk coming here. We could’ve gone inland where it seemed like it was less likely to be cloudy.”

As the minutes ticked by, and the moon’s shadowed slowly covered the sun, the crowded beach was constantly in motion.

“Oh wow,” Lawrence said as she checked on its progress. “Look! Are you looking?”

It got noticeably darker, and the temperature becoming tolerable, at 2:40 p.m. If anyone didn’t know there was an eclipse, they might have assumed it was cloud cover. The wind had picked up though, and thick cloud cover was looming to the east.

Of all places, Lawrence ran into a former student in the south end parking lot. “I taught her the year we were outside” for the partial eclipse, she said. The former student offered Lawrence her reservation at the library, but after checking a map, she declined. “That’s not going to be totality. It’s all about the totality.”

An osprey flew east over the island and turned north over the water. Swimmers left the water. The horizon filled with an amber glow.

At 2:46 p.m., sporadic cheers alerted everyone that it was almost time. The cheers became louder as the seconds brought, Baily’s Beads, the diamond ring and finally totality. And clouds. When the moon covered the sun, the cheers stopped and the crowd seemed to take a breath in unison. It was as if there was nothing else. The sun blacked out, corona visible. For 40 seconds it was silent. And then it was over.

The diamond ring reappeared. And the clouds moved in, obscuring any hope of watching the moon retreat back off the sun. The crowd cheered again. Screamed. Nature had lived up to the hype.

“I’m crying,” Davidek said, all smiles and hugs.

“That was amazing,” Lawrence said.

A large crowd gathered. The huddle turned into a group photo to commemorate the experience that brought them together. One woman yelled, “Selfie!”

“I’ll never forget this,” Davidek said.

It would take another hour for the moon to finish crossing in front of the sun, but many of those who had waited for darkness to fall had seen enough once the first light burst from behind the moon’s rim. Tents and chairs were folded. Bags were packed. The beach emptied.

“Everybody came together to have fun and enjoy it,” said Karen Yaniga, an island property owner. “I love that spirit of community.”

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