The story that follows supposedly happened more than a hundred years ago on the eve of New Year. It spanned two centuries, yet was over in a couple of seconds.
The story involves a passenger steamer named SS Warrimoo that was launched in 1892, originally to serve the Trans-Tasman route between Australia and New Zealand but later began ferrying passengers between Canada and Australia. The extraordinary event happened during one such trip.
In December 1899, SS Warrimoo (pictured above) was cruising through the calm waters of the mid-Pacific on its way from Vancouver to Australia. The navigator had just finished sighting the stars from which he calculated their position as 0 degrees, 31 minutes north, by 179 degrees, 30 minutes west. In other words, they were very close to the equator and very near the point where it meets the International Date Line. Upon hearing the report from the navigator, First Mate Payton noted the interesting nature of their position. Captain John Phillips realized that it was the night of 30th of December, and if he altered his course a little and timed his passage through the crossing, he could effect a neat trick that can’t be repeated for a hundred years.
Captain Phillips had is navigator double check their position, and then adjusted the course and speed of the Warrimoo so that at exactly 12 a.m., the ship lay astride the Equator at exactly the point where it crossed the International Date Line.
“The consequences of this bizarre position were many,” noted The Ottawa Journal.
The forward part of the ship was in the Southern Hemisphere and in the middle of summer. The rear part of the ship was in the Northern Hemisphere and in the middle of winter. Half of the ship was on 30 December 1899, while the forward half skipped a day ahead and into 1 January 1900.
This ship was therefore not only in two different days, two different months, two different years, two different seasons and two different hemispheres but also in two different centuries all at the same time.
But what happened to 31 December 1899? You might ask. Recall that the ship was going from Canada to Australia, thus travelling west, and anytime you cross the International Date Line going west, you automatically move forward by 24 hours because the time zones on either side of the International Date Line have a difference of 24 hours.
So if it’s 9 a.m. on Monday when you cross the International Date Line, the time and date the next moment will be 9 a.m on Tuesday, and you lose 24 hours.
In the case of Warrimoo, however, the ship crossed the International Date Line at exactly 0 hours or midnight when the day itself was turning into a new one. So when the clock should have struck 0 hours 0 minutes and 1 second on 31 December 1899, the shipped moved into a new time zone and was instantly transported 24 hours into the future, that is, 0 hours 0 minutes and 1 second on 1 January 1900. For the passengers of the ship, 31 December existed for only a fraction of a second.
Whether or not the purported event actually occurred remains to be proven. The only account of this extraordinary episode comes from a Canadian newspaper called The Ottawa Journal. However, the fact that this story wasn’t published until forty-two years later leaves plenty of room for doubt. Contemporary news report indicate that the Warrimoo did cross the equator on its way from Vancouver to Brisbane on Dec. 30 1899, so the ship was indeed at the right area at the right time for this account to be possibly true.
Even if Warrimoo did attempt to position itself at exactly the right spot, some question whether it could be accurately carried out given the limitation of navigation technology of the time.
Before satellite navigation, sailors used sextants to read angles between stars or the sun and the horizon, and then calculate the ship’s position. A measurement taken to an accuracy of 1 minute, or 60th of a degree, introduces an error of 1 nautical mile. An excellent sextant can narrow the window down to 0.1 minute, which is the best possible accuracy a sextant can achieve, but it is still off by 200 meters. Realistically, a highly skilled and experienced navigator can determine position to an accuracy of about 0.25-nautical-mile or about 460 meters.
Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that the Warrimoo was able to nail its position so accurately at exactly the right moment. Nevertheless, assuming that the Warrimoo did attempt the maneuver, it’s possible that the Captain genuinely believed the maneuver was successful, or he made it up. In any case, it’s fun to think that there is a spot on earth where all those conditions come together every one hundred years, even if for a split second in time.
SS Warrimoo’s later life was uneventful. After serving as a passenger ship for more than two decades, it was commissioned to carry troops fighting the Great War. While transporting troops across the Mediterranean on 17 May 1918, it collided with a French warship detonating the warship’s depth charges. The explosion sunk both ships and many lives were lost.