I’m baaack! I’ve beaten my long bout with terminal snyphlis. God, three weeks can be a long time! I can take a deep breath once in a while without coughing up any weird biology. Yeehaw! Once in a while you get a sense that maybe, just maybe, things are going to work out. A simple clear breath is such a wonderful thing!
I found a like-new compass on e-Bay, a Dirigo, one of the best names to be had. I made an offer, which time-expired, but I sleuthed out that of all the places on the planet, it was sitting in a pawn shop in Victoria right here on Southern Vancouver Island less than an hour away. I went and bought it for a very good price. The weather was gorgeous and for the first time in weeks I felt fit for living. Jack was along and he deserved a break at his favourite Victoria dog park, Macaulay Point Park, an old artillery fort built in the late 1800s.
Once home the suspense mounted as I headed for the dock to see how well the new compass fit the old box. With some simple inventiveness, one gimbal ring fit inside another and the whole plan fell into place as if it were pre-destined for a long time. A double-gimballed Dirigo! Eat your heart out. Wow! What a feeling after all the weeks of abject misery. Now all I have to do is swing the new compass and we’re ready for sea. What the hell do I mean by “swinging the compass?”
OK, it’s as good a time as any to explain the rudimentary principals of using a good old-fashioned magnetic device and yes, I’ll over-simplify as much as I dare. Contrary to some beliefs a compass does not tell you what direction you are going, nor does it actually even show in what direction True North lays.
Sadly there are a lot of pilots and mariners who don’t really know how a compass works anymore. Once, so long ago, it was the only navigational tool used by many travellers.
We live in the age of GPS which is a network of satellites. By simple triangulation they can very accurately determine where you are on the planet within inches. Unfortunately, all it takes is for Uncle Obama or, God forbid, Commander-In-Chief Trump, to flip a switch, and we loose our Global Positioning Network. With millions depending on this device in their car, boat, aircraft, mobile phone, camera, wristwatch, it would be a disaster. Many folks would be utterly screwed. The military allowed GPS to become available to the civilian world because it has something else even better. It doesn’t need GPS anymore now than muzzle-loading cannons. This becomes part of my eternal essay about how people are rendered dependant on technology. Eventually we become enslaved to convenience instead of having the freedom of relying on knowledge, wisdom and intuition. And so we become very easy to control. I know there are countless sailors who have crossed oceans only using their GPS, and electronic charts are universally accepted now. Many vessels even have a sextant aboard anymore. I don’t ever want to have to find my home in the dark with my eyes closed. I insist that one of the mantras of a real sailor is self-sufficiency. There is some deep value in retaining wisdoms of the old school.
So here’s how a magnetic compass works. There is a simple acrostic that reads: True Virgins Make Dull Company. I’ll explain.
TRUE north is any imaginary straight line on the planet that intersects the equator (another imaginary line) at 90° and crosses through both the North and South Poles (two more theoretical points) These north/south lines are called lines of longitude but I’m trying to keep this simple and we’ll avoid any description of latitude and longitude here. Using one of those lines on your chart you layout your course from A to B and then determine the true course to which you’ll add or subtract your adjusting values.
VARIATION is the local angle between Magnetic North and True or Theoretical North. Unfortunately The Magnetic North Pole is a considerable distance from the True North Pole so depending on where you are on the planet, the angle between the two poles naturally has to change. To further confuse the issue, the Magnetic North Pole slowly moves around. That precession must be accounted for to provide complete accuracy. Any chart or map will have a variation rose which will tell you how much the angle is changing annually. A navigator needs to calculate the current value of variation and then subtract if the variation is Easterly, or add if it is Westerly. Hang in there, it gets more interesting.
MAGNETIC This is the angle, or heading to steer once you have added or subtracted the variation as required.
DEVIATION Within any boat, aircraft, or other vehicle there are various magnetic properties. It may be the engine, electronic equipment, the steel plate in your head, stereo speakers and so forth. This magnetic pull is an influence on a compass and so each compass installation must be “Swung” to determine the amount of deviation, east or west, on every ten degrees of the compass card. It is then all recorded on a deviation card and posted within sight of the compass.
COMPASS Finally, now that you have added or subtracted the deviation closest to the heading you intend to steer, you have the actual number on the compass card to try and steer steadily toward.
Of course, you can set your GPS to steer either true or magnetic and it is not affected by any deviation until it goes bleep and becomes a dark, empty, lost screen. In the old days of sail, when you had to adjust your helm constantly to compensate for the vagaries of the wind in your sails, the helmsman “Boxed” the compass. He did not steer by degrees but rather the point the skipper ordered. A point, for example, of East Nor’East could be altered by the point (11.25 degrees) either way. One point to Starboard would make the heading ENE by East. You had to pay attention, even with the wind rumbling in your ears. The other navigation tool was a sextant, so that you could work out your position according to the angle of altitude to specific stars at a given moment. That required an accurate chronometer but here we teeter on the fine line between art and science and this is a blog and not a navigational tome.
A good friend and accomplished sailor just emailed me from Sydney Australia where he had toured the ‘James Craig’ a fully restored and working barque. He was gob-smacked.(A barque was a full-rigged ship, with at least two masts square-rigged) There are very few of these beauties left, especially in seaworthy condition. You can actually buy a ticket to go for a harbour cruise aboard her. I’ve trod the decks of ‘Cutty Sark,’ the famous preserved tea clipper stored in Greenwich, England and I fully understand Jimmy’s enthusiasm. There is a spirit in the fibres of these fabulous old icons. All of the emotion and drama of the long-ago passages, the storms, the rich characters of the crews are an energy which is easy to feel. It is tangible and very real, something much larger than mere imagination.. (A clipper had three masts square-rigged and was very fast.) ‘Cutty Sark’ once logged off 363 nautical miles in 24 hours, with a full cargo. She did that without burning one drop of fuel for propulsion! How’s that for green thinking?
My favourite full-rigger is the Mexican training barque ‘Cuauhtemoc,’ partly for my affinity of things Mexican but also for the love and spirit with which she is sailed and maintained. However, she was built in 1982 as a training ship and is not an original working ship like the ‘James Craig or ‘Cutty Sark.’
In addition to the skill required in simply steering such a vessel without auto-pilot or GPS the ‘James Craig’ apparently has 140 pieces of running rigging each held, or belayed, in place by a belaying pin. Each of those lines has its own name and place, which every crew member was expected to know. In storm or in dark, whether ill, hungry, or off-watch, a seaman was expected to know exactly what to do on demand, on deck, or in the rigging. To make a mistake, either at the helm or in the rigging could cost the ship a mast or worse. Injuries and fatalities were all too common and you didn’t want any on your head.. Many of these men could neither read nor write but the old term about “knowing the ropes” was a high accolade. The confidence in yourself and your shipmates had to be enormous. Men were appointed to their positions by their skill and experience. It had nothing to do with any piece of paper. It was not uncommon for a man in his mid-twenties to have been made captain. One of my two favourite nautical writers, Alan Villiers, (the other being Sterling Hayden) once served aboard the ‘James Craig’ when she plied her trade in the Tasman Sea. I’ve never laid eyes on her, but I feel I know her a little.
I truly believe that sail-training ships are one of the finest ways for young people to develop solid personal character as well as invaluable nautical experience. Sadly, Canada, with the longest navigable coastline of any nation, has only the lovely little old ketch ‘HMCS Oriole’ as our sail training vessel and flagship. Compared to Japan’s ‘Nippon Maru’ or the USCG ‘Eagle’ or Mexico’s ‘Cuauhtemoc’ it is rather embarrassing; eh?
Easter weekend has thundered up on us and the weather is grudgingly yielding to spring. Buds and leaves and flowers are emerging and this week I saw a huge flock of swans heading northward. Now there’s an example of real navigators. The dreary business of the US presidential pre-nuptuals wears on and on. As I write, the Ladysmith Volunteer Firehall has just sounded its general alarm once again. In minutes emergency vehicles wail off on their next mission of mercy and self-importance. (They love any opportunity to use their sirens.) Dogs around this little town howl in response to the sirens. Meanwhile, on the television, more horrific terrorist attacks in Europe have the media humming with speculations and innuendo. It’s clearly time to go swing my compass.
“ If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it.”
…Ken Livingston, British Labour Politician