Compasses are a must have to navigate effectively.

The oldest but most important navigational tool known to man is the compass.

Compasses come in all shapes and sizes, but for this, I’m concentrating on the main magnetic steering compass.

A Low-Tech Necessity

Many boaters think that, in these days of electronic-charting aids, compasses are no longer needed. Nothing could be further from the truth. A magnetic compass requires no electricity to operate, so it could be the one piece of navigational equipment that still operates on your boat when the you-know-what hits the fan.

As boats maneuver, the compass continues to point at magnetic north, and the course is shown (relative to magnetic north) in reference to a line, which represents the boat’s heading. A compass has what is known as the “card,” divided into 360 degrees. Thus, if the card reads 90 degrees, you will be steering a course due east; 180, due south; and so on.

A good skipper needs to be able to easily see the main steering compass. This means that it must be placed directly in front of the helm position with what is known as the lubber line — two pins or some type of marking — parallel to the centerline of the boat. The skipper merely glances down to see the course being steered.


Practice steering a compass course rather than following your chart plotter. It will take a little getting used to, but when you need it, you’ll know how to do it.

You’ll have more situational awareness and less strain on your eyes. On a sailboat, an added bonus is that steering by compass can keep you attuned to the wind. As the wind shifts, you may be able to harden up or crack off a few degrees, rather than trying to follow that line on the plotter.

Novice helmsmen often complain that the compass is constantly moving, but it’s worth remembering that the compass does not move. It’s the boat that’s moving!

A properly installed and adjusted compass is a valuable navigation tool. Buy the best one your budget will allow, and take good care of it. You’ll be rewarded with years of service and accurate navigation.