Nfld. & Labrador

Skipper Jim Gillard will take you from sea to sky

Retired fisherman Jim Gillard has expanded his horizons, setting up a $16,000 telescope in a hand-built observatory in his front yard.

Boat tours and astronomy tours are both offered

Jim Gillard poses for a photo with his telescope in 2017. He's since traded in this model for an upgraded version with a 16-inch aperture. (Skipper Jim's Boat Tours & Astronomical Observatory/Facebook)

At first glance, the fuzzy object you are looking at — even if you are using Jim Gillard's $14,000 telescope — might not strike you as all that impressive.

Just a "little disk of what looks like gas," not "all that beautiful," he says. It's only after a bit of thought that you realize just how far away these distant lights are, and the full weight of what you are seeing sinks in.

Take the Andromeda galaxy, for example, more than two million light years away from earth. 

It's far away, but when you peer at it from here, you're getting a look at a very fast but very long collision course with our own Milky Way.

That usually strikes a chord.

"When you realize that thing is 2.3 million years away, 120,000 light years across, hundreds of billions of stars as is in our Milky Way … all of a sudden it's not just a little fuzzy object," Gillard said.

"What's phenomenal about it, if you give it some thought … the photons of light that are actually hitting your eye left the galaxy 2.3 million years ago, and just impacted your eye."

Gillard will spend hours peering into that history in his home-built observatory, located right in his front yard near Twillingate.

The retired fisherman has invested over $50,000 in the observatory, which includes a hand-made rotating dome that is powered by hydraulic pumps and Skidoo tracks.

The dome sits on top of a separate building that Gillard has built off his front deck. Both levels are filled with information on astronomy. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"I took the same system that I used for pulling up the crab pots in 1,200 feet of water."

Hours in the observatory

Gillard gives tours, a nice companion to his boat tour enterprise — but he doesn't do much advertising for either, he says, so his observatory is more of a passion than a business.

"If it's nice weather, and he can get up there and see the stars, he's up there a lot," said Audrey Gillard, Jim's wife. 

"I'd say anywhere from — depends on the weather, like I said — four hours, six hours, could be longer."

Gillard stands near his half-built astronomical dome during its construction in 2000. The dome is 10 feet across, and was built in a shed on New World Island. (Courtesy astro.nwisland.ca)

Gillard — known as "Skipper Jim" — spent 40 years in the fishery. When his children moved out, he started to sink his teeth into his astronomy passion.

He says he built the observatory dome in 2000, and this year he bought his second serious telescope: a Meade Instruments LX200 telescope, with a 16-inch aperture.

For backyard stargazers, it's a serious upgrade — both in weight and in quality.

With his new rig, he can punch in the coordinates for any object in the night sky, and the computer-operated scope will take him right there.

A long-time passion

Skipper Jim said he's been passionate about stars ever since he was in high school.

"I had been reading about it for years and years and years, but it came to a point where I had to, you know, I had to start looking at some of these things that I was reading about," he said.

"Reading about it is one thing, but looking at it and finding it exactly where it's supposed to be in the sky is phenomenal."

Audrey Gillard sits in the dome location prior to its installation in 2000. (Courtesy astro.nwisland.ca)

These days, he's focused on the Messier 87 galaxy, about 65 million light years away.

That's the same galaxy where astronomers using the Event Horizon Telescope photographed a black hole.

"All the light we see out there is history, history. But it's detailed, during that period. That light is carrying tremendous detail about the nature of the source," Gillard said.

"When you look out in the sky and it's hard to look at these clusters of stars with your imagination going wild. At least for me, anyway, the potential is enormous there."

His telescope has the power to bring even the familiar into a new light. A look at the moon through Gillard's lens will reveal individual mountains and craters.

Gillard poses a photo with his new telescope, which he installed this spring. The telescope is rooted into a support and attached to a cement block underground, which minimizes vibration. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

He estimates he's spent more than $50,000 on his observatory, in total.

"You know, sometimes it's hard to make a bit of money, but you know what? The key is when you get it spent, if you're happy with what you got for the money, then that's all that matters," he said.

For her part, Audrey Gillard said she's happy to have Jim spend all those hours in the observatory.

"I get to do what I want to do, watch my show when I want to watch my show," she said, laughing. 

"When he's not on the water, this is his to-go place."

Besides, it beats the middle-of-the-night wake-up calls she used to get to help haul his equipment inside, before he had a permanent structure and a moveable roof.

Jim Gillard is reflected on the screen of his laptop in his astronomical dome in near Twillingate. Gillard uses this computer to spot individual features of the moon, which he can then navigate to on his telescope. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

She is not as interested as her partner in the wonders of the night sky. But Skipper Jim has found a few visitors that are.

"I had 20 girl guides here four, five days ago. And running them through the dome here four or five at a time. There's no trouble to know when they see something special. They look in that eye piece and it's like 'wow!' or, 'Oh my god!'" he said.

"It's nice to be able to show them that. None of them had ever looked through a telescope before and seen the moon, so they're all pretty excited about that."

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About the Author

Garrett Barry

Journalist

Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter based in Gander.

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