For the pirate astronomers of Sea of Thieves, charting the secrets of the solar eclipse was just the beginning

(Image credit: Rare)

Staring at the storm clouds gathering overhead, Nayfe Pacewell begins to panic. He's been waiting at his desk for 12 long hours for the next solar eclipse within Sea of Thieves, tracking the in-game hours and days as they ticked by, trying to pinpoint exactly how often the moon blots out the sun. The storm could jeopardise all of that. 

Up until now, it's been an arduous wait perched upon the sea rock east of Smuggler's Bay. Pacewell scans the horizon intermittently, in between distracting himself with YouTube videos, watching for any signs of sails that may hinder his quest, keeping his character active in order to avoid being kicked from the server. As the storm clouds fatten and grey, his worst fear becomes a possibility, with all the time he's invested so far being thrown away due to pure dumb luck. He makes a snap decision.

Jumping aboard his ship, he sets course for a new vantage point at Cannon Cove, racing the storm as it blows and batters against the ship's side. On the Sea of Thieves, even astronomy has its risks.

Sea of Photographers

For an online multiplayer game, Rare's pirate sandbox offers an unusual degree of freedom for players to have fun as they see fit. There are quests and treasure hunts and ship battles, but you can also just fish or set sail with a crew and see where the voyage takes you. For Pacewell and his fellow members of the Ancient Isles University, that typically means long expeditions to uncover the secrets of the Sea of Thieves. 

Taking advantage of the open-ended structure, they conduct meteorological, anthropological, and astronomical studies within the game to learn more about its systems and lore. Though to begin with, before Pacewell was braving storms to record a solar eclipse, they started out with a more modest objective—to take the perfect photo.

"I was huge into Sea of Photography," Pacewell tells me over Twitter. "I would often spend my time in the game looking for the best snap, over [looking for] the best loot. Once I caught wind of the eclipse's existence, I had to get a photo and just one wasn't going to be enough. So, I had to find out where and when to make sure I was ready for the 30 second window to get my screenshot."

During his search, Pacewell quickly discovered other like-minded players to help him in his task. Joining forces with the Sea of News founder Karl Smith—who had previously stumbled across the celestial event—the two had the bold idea to go further than just capturing pretty screenshots of Rare's lush pirate world by charting the eclipse's cycle. This was in 2018, a few months after Sea of Thieves was released to reviews praising its ideas but critical of a relative lack of stuff to do. But Pacewell and Smith had a goal to chase beyond Rare's grindy progression system.

(Image credit: Nayfe Pacewell)

"I remember posting on Reddit asking if anyone else had seen [an eclipse], and how often," says Smith. "At that point I thought if enough people were interested in reporting sightings, we might be able to track them, but it never really went anywhere. Later, I got involved in the Sea of Thieves Twitter community after starting up my Twitter account and website, and eventually I crossed paths with Nayfe."

Each day in Sea of Thieves lasts for 24 minutes, so in order to track the cycle thoroughly they would need to spend a considerable amount of time playing, waiting for the eclipse to appear. Pacewell volunteered, documenting the moon's position for 12 hours, until that storm blew in and threatened to block his view.

"The biggest fear, above all things was missing what I was waiting for," Pacewell says. "Sitting 12 hours waiting for a 15-30 second event only to be lightly distracted for a small window, or [if] the storm passes in front and I have no time to change position, and miss the shot. That was hands down the worst fear..."

Emerging from the storm, Pacewell frantically took up his spot on the new vantage point and was able to snap a photo of the moon's partial occlusion—a satisfying end to his lengthy expedition. Along the way he'd dodged krakens, storms, skeletons, and scurvy pirates, but he witnessed what he had set out for. He repeated the experiment a few times to refine his studies, once even encountering another friendly crew who tagged along after an awkward "Ahoy" and hasty explanation over text chat. After helping them fight off a galleon's worth of ghoulish skeletons, he brought them to the top of an island just in time to share a grog and witness the rare event.

Pacewell and Smith worked on converting the in-game time frame to real-time to determine that an eclipse occurred roughly every 11 hours 12 minutes. After cracking the mystery, they started charting when an eclipse would next appear and announcing each one to the Sea of Thieves photography community on Twitter. With eclipses mastered, they started looking for new secrets to explore.

(Image credit: Nayfe Pacewell)

Ancient Isles University

Smith and Pacewell started the Ancient Isles University Discord, bringing in other members of the community to focus on topics like anthropology and meteorology. The University was started to have somewhere to keep all their findings in one place. "But as other like-minded pirates joined, we made it feel more like a learning environment where we can all discuss and discover, together," says Pacewell. Despite these new disciplines initially being considered separate, there turned out to be a lot of crossover.

The anthropological side, for instance, focuses on the lore of the Sea of Thieves, which inevitably includes the Ancients—an unknown group of people who populated the Sea of Thieves prior to the Pirate Lord's arrival. They were responsible for naming the constellations that appear in the Stars of a Thief tall tale, where players gain a magical telescope that lets them use the stars as their guide. Because not much is known about the Ancients group, the constellations and the diary pages you receive during this quest represent an important clue to figuring out more about their culture and what their life was like on the seas. 

"When I first came into this, I was researching the Ancients," says Callico, the pirate spearheading the anthropology division for the Ancient Isles University. "We discovered that the Ancient Isles were going to provide us with the most details; more specifically Thieves Haven. The pages [and constellations] in The Stars of a Thief have been helpful with figuring out the tone of specific paintings as they tell us the Ancient's relationship to specific animals, and the animal's relationship with each other."

Two of the biggest ongoing mysteries related to the Ancients are who they were and where they went, with only their structures and paintings remaining in the game's world as clues. They are not only mentioned within the game, but within expanded media such as the book Athena's Fortune, which speaks of them as a civilisation of "artisans and sculptors, philosophers and painters" and mentions their relationship with the merfolk and their sudden, mysterious disappearance.

It's a backstory Callico and the Ancient Isles University hope to unravel more as time goes on. 

Pirate Skulliah joined with the hopes of predicting the movement of the game's single, omnipresent roving storm as part of a meteorological study—something that will not only benefit those hoping to catch storm fish, but those within the group wishing for a clear view of the night's sky. Skulliah aims to develop an interactive weather map for the Sea of Thieves, possible because time of day and weather are two elements persistent across all servers.

"Ultimately, I'd love to have a weather forecast and show in real time where the storm is on my map," says Skulliah, who has spent a number of sessions looking for a pattern to its movement already. "Our main theory would be that it follows a well-defined loop, but I think we still have a lot of investigation to be done in order to be able to make our predictions."

Smith and Pacewell are looking for their next adventure in-game. Having charted the eclipse's frequency, they've been studying the potential for a total eclipse. In spite of some initial optimism, recent findings have thrown this possibility into doubt. The sun and moon never align perfectly, according to their research.  

Since Sea of Thieves first launched it's inspired creative community events like pirate game shows, legendary races, and sea-faring shanty groups, but Ancient Isles University is the first of these to offer pirates interested in more intellectual pursuits an opportunity to collaborate and share their findings.

Casting their eyes to the sky, they try to explain the unexplained and crack the mysteries of the Sea of Thieves one at a time. Not for the gold, but for the glory.