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Observing at an Ocean Beach

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#1 FirstSight

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 10:18 AM

Finding suitable spots to observe on one of the barrier islands along the US east coast can be challenging. The foremost requirement is that the chosen spot must be one where the risk of sand, wind, and salt water to telescope optics is acceptably tame, circumstances not typically found out on the strand between the dune line and the ocean. Second, the chosen spot must be permissibly accessible to both observer and equipment. Third, the spot must offer both open horizons and minimal interference from artificial light. It's difficult to simultaneously satisfy all these conditions.

Are there others than me who have found satisfactory locations to observe near ocean beaches, especially (but not limited to) the eastern U.S. coast? If so, how have you gone about minimizing risk to your optics?

#2 FirstSight

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 10:24 AM

I've been fortunate to have a couple of feasible observing options at Sunset Beach, NC, in the southernmost corner of N.C., where I have a house. First, for a developed barrier island, Sunset Beach has an unusually broad 500+ foot zone of dunes and low maritime forest between the line of "oceanfront" cottages and the oceanfront dune line, with public-access boardwalks every block running from the street out to the ocean. Here's a picture of the boardwalk on my street (2nd Street) looking oceanward. The maritime forest on either side is about 8-12 feet tall above the level of the boardwalk, which is elevated 2-3 feet along its length. I can load my refractor, tripod, mount, eyepiece case, and observing chair into the same wagon I use in daytime to haul beach chairs, umbrellas, and coolers out to the strand, and port my astro gear out to this or one of the other boardwalks. Note that although the view in this picture looks directly oceanward, you cannot see the ocean because the line of dunes is tall enough to shield it (a good thing for the purpose at hand). The boardwalk is apx 500 feet long here.

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#3 FirstSight

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 10:26 AM

Here's the view of the ocean from the other end of the boardwalk. The boardwalk gently slopes up the last 75 feet or so in order to climb over the front dune line.

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#4 FirstSight

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 10:31 AM

Here's looking from the same spot as the previous picture, but in the opposite direction back toward the island. Off-season, lights from the houses you see aren't a problem, but in busier times i.e. late spring through early fall they can be, and so in season I'll usually go to a different street with a somewhat longer boardwalk and thicker, taller, longer maritime forest shielding it. Also, 2nd street is too near the island fishing pier's lights, when they're on in-season.

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#5 FirstSight

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 10:34 AM

My other spot is on the rooftop deck of my house, about 30 ft above street level. I'm about 1500 ft from the ocean to my south, and about 400 ft from the tidal marsh to the north separating the island from the mainland.

In this view, you can just see a sliver of ocean visible over the top of my NP-101 scope.

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#6 FirstSight

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 10:40 AM

Here's looking back to the north (sound side). The facing set of benches make the space a bit cramped, and it can be tight maneuvering my observing chair into positon at certain angles. The house and deck are very solidly built, and I'm so accustomed to walking softly enough while observing to avoid inducing an problematic vibrations that I can do so without even consciously having to think about it when I'm up there alone observing. However, when I bring others up to observe with me, it can be a problem, and I have to remind people to step softly. I use the north bench as my table for the scope case and eyepiece boxes, and do any sitting to consult e.g. the pocket sky atlas on the south bench.

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#7 FirstSight

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 10:51 AM

Of course, I've got plenty of neighboring houses, as you can see in this picture. Off-season I don't usually have problems with neighbor's lights, and even in summer I often have decent luck with lights, but not always, especially when vacation renters are in nearby houses. I've been considering rigging up some sort of removable dark-cloth light shields around my deck, but haven't quite worked out a final design. It has to be something that I can quickly put up and take down just for the length of the observing session. It will also probably cost at least $250-$300 to do it right.

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#8 FirstSight

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 10:59 AM

Here's the view of the observing deck from street level. There's a bit of arduous overhead involved in hauling everything from ground level up three stories worth of stairs to the observing deck level. The final stairway up to the top deck is rather steep and narrow. I rarely take my 12" dob down to the beach with me any more, in large part because it's such a PITA to haul the base and OTA up there and back down. In order to minimize exposure to salt air, I take my refractors up just for the length of the observing session and then take them back down one story to my bedroom when done. However, it's a forbidding task to do that every night back and forth for a 12" OTA and base, and it's a rather bulky presence in the bedroom. Back when I had an Orion XT8 I would sometimes also take it down to the boardwalks to observe, but have never taken my 12" reflector anywhere beyond my rooftop deck; the boardwalk option is forbiddingly infeasible with the 12" for a variety of reasons.

You can probably guess that this deck is not a great place to try to observe if there's much wind. Fortunately, most clear nights are relatively calm. Observing becomes prohibitive up there with a gusty 15mph breeze.

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#9 CJK

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 11:23 AM

Wow, Chris -- what a beautiful spot to relax and observe! (I like the beer in the 4th photo!)

I've always dreamed of owning a home in southern Maryland, somewhere on the Bay. Maybe in retirement...

-- Chris

#10 tedbnh

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Posted 10 January 2013 - 10:10 AM

I'm in Hampton Beach, NH. The State Park is right across the street and I often go there after dark. They have grassy areas which are fine for observing, and a parking lot. Unfortunately they keep adding lights to deter vandalism so it is deteriorating but the views over the water are superb. Just stay away from sand and wind. I would not take equipment close enough to the beach to encounter sand or spray (although for outreach I have an old XT6 that I do bring right out onto the sand when we have public events there, and it suffers the expected effects on its bearings. Cost of doing business...)

#11 csa/montana

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Posted 10 January 2013 - 10:13 AM

Wow Chris; now that is really the "crow's nest"! You must get great views from there!

#12 uniondrone

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Posted 10 January 2013 - 12:02 PM


Chris,

That looks beautiful and awesome... or should I dare say beautifully awesome! :bow:

What mount/tripod do you have on that scope? It seems like a good combination of portable and reasonably stable.

#13 FirstSight

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Posted 10 January 2013 - 08:03 PM

What mount/tripod do you have on that scope? It seems like a good combination of portable and reasonably stable.


It's a Universal Astronomics (brand) "Unistar Light Deluxe" on a UA light aluminum surveyor's tripod with adjustable spreaders. The Unistar Light Deluxe is an excellent, well-designed alt-az mount which only weighs 2 lbs, but a Televue NP-101 is at the very edge of it's rated weight limit of 10 lbs (actually, a bit beyond since the NP-101 is more like 11 lbs including the diagonal and saddle plate). It's a testament to the solid build and design of the Unistar Light mount that it's able to handle the heavier NP-101 as competently well as it does, but the fact that it's operating near the envelope of its limitations with the NP101 begins to show if there's much wind or sometimes in longer vibration settling times when focusing at higher powers. My very next piece of astro equipment is going to be an upgrade to the regular Unistar Deluxe, which is identical in design but heavier (7bs) and capable of smoothly handling a far more robust load (up to 40 lbs). I originally bought the Unistar Deluxe Light model for my WO Megrez 90, long before I got the NP-101. At the time I purchased the Unistar Light, I wanted a setup that was lightweight and easily portable by hand-carrying it if necessary, particularly out to those beach boardwalks pictured in this thread. It worked very well for that purpose, but since it's turned out I nearly always use a beach cart to port my stuff to the boardwalks, saving 5 lbs mount weight isn't such an important consideration now.

The lightweight tripod itself OTOH seems quite adequate for the NP-101. By similar reasoning as for the mount, had I purchased it with the NP-101 in mind rather than the lighter Megrez-90, I might have gone for UA's middle-weight model instead of lightweight one, but I see no pressing need to upgrade the lighter model that I already have. I am VERY glad I got the adjustable spreaders, which help substantially in adding stability and balance to the tripod, and in fact may be an important reason the lighter-weight model seems adequate to the task. It's nice to be able to dynamically set the legs as wide or narrow as necessary for whatever height I'm using the tripod at on a given night, and for narrower vs unrestricted spaces.

In summary, I would recommend Unistar for both the mount and the tripod, albeit the "UA" tripod is actually just a re-branded surveyor's tripod from another manufacturer, but with a couple of adaptations that make it more suitable for astronomy (e.g. vibration-absorbing rubber feet). Larry, the proprietor of Universal Astronomics, does however make UA mounts himself in his machine shop in Massachussets, and is a pleasure to deal with.

#14 Scott in NC

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Posted 10 January 2013 - 09:32 PM

Very nice observing location, Chris--I'm coming over to join you the next time I get down to the beach! :lol:

#15 GeneT

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Posted 10 January 2013 - 10:48 PM

the chosen spot must be one where the risk of sand, wind, and salt water to telescope optics is acceptably tame,


This is so true. Most people who live near a coast know how to protect from these risks. However, they may be some who live inland and load up the telescope when heading off to the beach. It is important to take some extra precautions. Sand and salt have a way of working themselves into telescopes and electronics. Ocean side can be a great place to view. Just take a few common sense precautions.

#16 IcecreamLtDan

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Posted 11 January 2013 - 06:54 PM

I've had good luck with observing at the outer banks. The house we generally rent is located at the southern end of Nagshead, almost where the beach road end on Hwy. 12. This has given me some excellent views over the years. Now that we live near Topsail Island I find myself going to the outer banks less often so I now need to find a new place to observe. Oh well, sucks living at the beach I guess.

:)

#17 BPO

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Posted 11 January 2013 - 07:27 PM

Hi FirstSight.

I was born and bred here, in a house right on the beach. I had an old 50mm Tasco setup on the patio. Back then (late '60s - late '80s) the power was out as often as it was on, not that there were many lights any (there were six families within ~10 km radius). Many nights the seeing and transparency were stupendous. Some of the best observing I've ever experienced was with that little 'scope on the deck by the sea. It's an incredible experience.

#18 Scott in NC

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Posted 11 January 2013 - 09:17 PM

I was born and bred here, in a house right on the beach.


Wow--what a beautiful looking beach! :)

#19 StarStuff1

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Posted 12 January 2013 - 02:52 PM

From around 2002-2009 we had access to a great rental beach house on Folly Beach, near Charlestin, SC. We usually went there during the Winter months. Between the turtle lights off thing and lack of other tourists it could be pretty dark. The house was right ON the edge of the water and at the end of the island. The deck faced directly south and on a dark night you could not see where the sky met the ocean. On good nights I could get in some great viewing but only at low powers due to the height of the deck and a seemingly constant breeze.

As a coincidence, Chris, we vacationed at Sunset Beach for the first time last May. Your pics look exactly like the ones we took! A nice place.

#20 jturie

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Posted 12 January 2013 - 08:42 PM

Chris, very nice! We vacationed at Sunset Beach a number of years ago when a hurricane blew us off the Outer Banks.

We go to Avon NC every September. Hopefully I will bring down my new 6SE to see what I can see. Neighborhood won't work, because all the tourists basically turn on every light in their houses. However, maybe I can head north and grab a spot somewhere along the Natl Seashore or even down by the lighthouse. I would LOVE to set up somewhere on Ocracoke, but doubt that will happen.

#21 kenrenard

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Posted 12 January 2013 - 08:57 PM

Nice setup. I bought my UA dwarf star from Larry's machine shop. He really makes nice stuff and is a great guy to deal with. Make's me think of a summer trip.

#22 JayinUT

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Posted 13 January 2013 - 03:51 PM

Chris,

You have a beautiful and wonderful spot to observe from. Just tremendous. Makes me miss N.C.






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