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Geo-Joint: The Curious Placement of the S.S. Warrimoo

Posted on January 18 2017

We mark the passage of time by seconds, minutes, hours, etc., up to centuries and millennia. Of course, there are much longer periods used by geologists and astronomers, but for human purposes the shorter ones are sufficient for common use. While counting time, we all live on a big ball, and to make sense of that home we have made models and marked them up with lines of latitude, longitude, and time zones. These systems are ingenious, but most people don’t think too much about how all the various increments and delineations interact. Back in 1996, in anticipation of the coming turn of the century (and millennium), the Pacific island nation of Kiribati unilaterally extended the International Date Line quite a ways to the east to include all of its far-flung islands. By this clever maneuver, the nation was able to claim that the first sunrise of the millennium would fall on their shores. As a tourist draw, it probably garnered them a few more dollars. This is one example of manipulating time and place for special effect, but a hundred years earlier, a situation evolved that made Kiribati’s arrangement look tame.

I am relating the following tale with the assumption that it is based in fact, though it is a sailor’s yarn, and that alone opens it to some bit of skepticism. Adding the fact that it’s an Australian sailor’s yarn, well, I leave it to you to judge the veracity. I have found the story described on any number of websites, where I frequently found much the same wording, but the official site of the Company of Master Mariners of Australia also features this narrative, so at least one seemingly responsible organization has thrown in with the tale.

So, me mateys, it seems that in December 1899, an Australian passenger steamer by the name of the S.S. Warrimoo was enroute across the Pacific from Vancouver, Canada to its native Australia. The seas were calm as she plied the warm waters near the middle of the voyage. The navigator took his star sighting that night and calculated their position as 0 degrees, 31 minutes north, by 179 degrees, 30 minutes west. In other words, they were close by the equator, and very near to crossing the International Date Line. Upon hearing the report from the navigator, the first mate noted the interesting quality of their location. The captain realized that as it was the night of the 30th of December, he could effect a neat trick. He had the navigator double-check his readings, and then adjusted the speed of the Warrimoo in the tranquil seas so that at precisely 12:00 midnight the ship was laying at the point where the equator and the date line intersected. Thus it was, that the vessel was at once in two different days, months, years, and even centuries. As well, it sat simultaneously in all four hemispheres, and in both summer and winter.

It may not seem right that this was possible as they were sailing along on the 30th of December. Wouldn’t they have had to time this rare arrangement on the 31st? As you cross the International Date Line going west, you automatically lose a day. So in this case, at midnight, for an infinitesimal amount of time, the stern was in the 30th in the western hemisphere, which was about to become the 31st, and the bow was in the 1st, in the eastern hemisphere, about to become the 2nd. That is to say, the 31st blinked out of existence for the ship’s passengers.

Now as I said before, the veracity of this ode has not been proven to me conclusively, and moreover, the positional accuracy obtainable by a sextant limits a sailor’s ability to know his exact location. Sextants read the angle between the sun or another star, and the horizon. If you can get this measurement down to an accuracy of a 60th of a degree, or 1 minute, there is a leeway of 1 nautical mile in your calculated position. With a very good sextant and excellent procedure, that window narrows to .2 of a minute. That’s 1/5th of a mile. To calculate longitude one also needs a highly accurate timepiece. Being off by one second of time puts your position off by 1/4 of a mile. So given all that, it’s pretty unlikely that the Warrimoo nailed its position so accurately at exactly the right moment. But, provided the attempt really did occur, they were no doubt dang close. (“dang close” is a scientific term indicating, “well within a mile.”) And the fun part is, even if the whole thing is just an old sailor’s bucket of bilge water, it’s neat to think that there is a spot on earth where all those conditions come together, if only for a split second in time.

Taking an even broader view of the whole picture, you realize that this fascinating convergence of conditions comes about as the result of human calculating and measuring systems, about which the actual planet gives not a hoot. The eastern and western hemispheres are entirely arbitrary concepts, and the points from which we count time aren’t even the same between different cultures, so there is no absolute. The significance of the event is really all in our heads then, but being human, that’s where we come up with our understanding of all the geographic mechanics of our big spherical home.

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