The 6 Best Boat Compasses
Keeping It Old School
These can display your angle of heel, which is helpful if you’re deciding whether to reef or shorten sail.
Some of us were not born with an innate sense of direction — we could lose our way in a parking lot. But if you're dreaming of becoming a salty seafarer, some navigation know-how is non-negotiable. Even if your boat has a GPS system that can do everything short of tying your shoes, any purist will tell you that a compass is a must. This age-old innovation not only connects you with maritime navigation traditions that go back centuries, it's also straightforward to use and doesn't rely on satellites to work. As you ponder the items on our list, consider the following to help you decide which model best suits your needs.
Where you're placing your compass will determine how you install it. One of the most stable and space-saving methods is flush, which means it rests horizontally within a cutout that's has been created by the manufacturer of your boat or expedition kayak. Some skippers prefer this orientation because it leaves less room for error, however, not every vessel has this option. If you're looking to take it with you when you leave, there are surface-mount styles that come off with the push of a button. If you desire a versatile alternative, consider bracket-mounts, which are removable and attachable to surfaces with a host of different tilt angles. For a smaller sailboat that doesn't have a binnacle, opt for a bulkhead-mount design, since they're sized to fit on compact dashboards.
You'll want the dial, also known as a card, to be effortless to read at a glance. Bold lettering in a contrasting color and a bright red N are helpful, as is subtle LED lighting that can provide a glow that isn't too harsh. A flat-style card can be a bit of a pain since you have to peer into your compass to look at it, but they also usually have a dampener that keeps them in place, so they stay put in rough waters. Naturally, your compass will pitch and roll along with your vessel as you cut through the current, which is why you'll need to ensure it has a reliable internal gimbal system to keep it from bottoming out; some of the best systems use lightweight aluminum and brass.
And if you’re searching for something for your sailboat, it’s good to get a design with a clinometer built in. These can display your angle of heel, which is helpful if you’re deciding whether to reef or shorten sail.
Navigating An Ancient World
The compass is widely considered to be the greatest technological advancement in the history of navigation. It was initially employed by the Chinese around 200 B.C.E., when they discovered magnetism by observing the behavior of lodestones, naturally magnetized fragments that attract iron. They applied this newfound knowledge to things like fortune telling and determining the best places to plant crops, but eventually realized it could help them find their way on cloudy days and during dark nights. Nobody thought to bring their lodestone compasses offshore, and so sailors did without them until hundreds of years later. Even then, superstitious seamen were uncomfortable with their autonomy, likening it to witchcraft. Instead, many preferred to rely on other time-tested, black magic-free ways of getting around.
Instead, many preferred to rely on other time-tested, black magic-free ways of getting around.
Some of the earliest navigators kept land in sight at all times, simply following the coast to keep track of where they were. By recalling landmarks and using other rudimentary techniques, the ancient Greeks were able to venture between islands with relative ease. They may have even used clouds and odors wafting from shore to aid their course. Norsemen that veered too far away would look for seabirds with beaks full of food, who were most likely en route to their rookeries to feed their young. Certain Norwegian sailors had a clever and slightly cruel use for avians, keeping hungry ravens aboard and only releasing them when they suspected they were close to shore. If they were, the famished birds would head straight for it, and the men would follow along.
Another ingenious method, employed by the Phoenicians, involved the use of a bell-shaped instrument called a sounding weight, which was made of stone and filled with tallow. Sailors would lower it into the water to measure depth and estimate how far from land they’d traveled. It could also pick up sediment from the ocean floor, which experienced seamen would examine to determine a precise location.
Taming The Sea Safely
As any seasoned skipper will tell you, a hefty dose of common sense and taking a few basic precautions will help ensure everyone aboard stays safe during your journey. Before setting sail, it’s good to draw up a departure checklist that details the items you’ll need and the rules of the vessel, so all passengers are well-versed on what to do in an emergency. One of the most important things to bring along is a life vest for every single person on board. Everyone needs to wear their jacket at all times since a capsized boat is hardly ever something you can anticipate. Another useful tool to supply your team with is a whistle. These are excellent for someone who has fallen overboard to signal their location, or to warn other crafts to let them know you’re coming.
It should go without saying, but you'll want to avoid alcoholic beverages completely. Your accident rate doubles when participants have been drinking, and can only get worse with prolonged sun and wind exposure. It's also beneficial to designate one of your passengers as your assistant skipper. Educate them on vessel operations and safety procedures, so that if you're incapacitated in any way, your second in command can get everyone to shore safely.
Before you head out, check the weather forecast for the day and take heed of noticeable changes. Sudden drops in temperature, cloudy skies, and harsh winds may be harbingers of a storm, and while a mighty sea squall might look epic in the movies, it's probably something best experienced from the comfort of your couch.