Taking sight bearings the Coaster way

During the time the coaster trade, smaller than 500 BRT and later 1800 BRT, was in full swing these ships had only a magnetic compass topside without any sighting gear, no pelorus nothing. Not the luxury of the ocean trade ships with gyro compasses in the wheelhouse and on the port and starboard wings.

A lot of accidents, mostly groundings, were due to the fact that, also depending on weather circumstances, they were often not in the mood to go topside to take bearings. The direction finder was their main aid of navigation.

If they had to go upstairs to take a bearing they pressed the fingertips of both hands and thumbs against each other. Thumbs up and little finger down. In a kind of praying motion the hands were then put over the compass. A point ashore was aligned at eye level over the fingertips and then the hand was “hinged” down until usually the little fingertips indicated the bearing. Quite unusual but it was standard practice.

Coaster Victoria - 1979.

On a Shell tanker we had a second officer, who had sailed a number of years on coasters, who used this method which none of the others had ever seen before. The guy was very fast, three bearings in a couple of seconds and they looked pretty good in the chart!

However, on one occasion when we were heading north, while hugging the South African shoreline to profit from the Algulhas counter current, that mate was taking bearings again with his “bearing over the hands” method as we called it and was caught in the act by the captain who ought to be asleep but was not. The poor man almost threw a fit, foaming at the mouth and all that, when he discovered what the mate was doing and that on a Shell super tanker. Shame on you! It became quite a situation for the poor guy. The story echoed for days around the ship, nothing ever happened on these deadly runs to the Gulf and back again, so this was a welcome distraction.


If it’s working I don’t see why the captain would lose his shit. Seems to me that the captain overshot, by far. Perfect time to use the shit sandwich. Say the good/bad/good.

Glad to see you’re taking bearings and keeping a good plot / tighten things up a bit by using the bearing circle / nice to see you’re standing a good watch.


I would think using a bearing circle vs the hands would depend of the distance off shore. Close in switching to the bearing circle has less increase in precision then further out.

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Here is a shadow pin. Pilots in Japan use it for getting a quick bearing or checking bearing change in traffic.



In the old days a Captain was God. As the saying goes here: ‘What the farmer doesn’t know he won’t eat’. The 2nd sputtered that he could proof to the captain that his method was as good as the traditional methods but he was told to shut up. A captain could ruin your career so you better keep silent.

On at least one other ship I sailed with mates who used the parallel ruler to take bearings. You had to pay close attention that if you read the bearing the ruler was precisely over the center of the compass rose. The best thing was that it was in line with the opposite bearing and then you knew that it was exactly over the center of the compass rose so it was was a guaranteed good bearing.

This was sometimes checked by taking a radar bearing and the positions hardly differed from each other.


I had a friend who was a compass adjuster/calibrator and what he almost always used was a shadow pin and a cheap level. Some even glued a center drilled copper cent over the center of the rose. The hole was for centering it correctly, as long as the glue was soft you could move it around. The shadow pin for a perfect fit was fastened to a small disc that was milled to a very little bit over the diameter of the cent.

There were other methods such as gluing a copper pin in the center of the glass.

Here’s mine with all the goodies. It comes in handy in my office.Pelorus


When I was conning in relative close quarters situation I would make like a chopping with my hand and lay it along the compass bearing and sight down it.


Either along the course I wanted (compass to visual) or in the direction I planned to go (visual to compass). Two things, it connects the abstract to the real (compass bearing to direction) and it just about eliminates the chances of an error when giving the course to the helmsman.

I managed to teach this to a couple of third mates, it forces them to conn from the center line and it quickly increased their confidence levels and competence.

Left to themselves they will mumble helm commands/ courses into the radar.


Funny that you mention this method because that same 2nd mate that got blasted over his ‘praying’ method taught us, in secret!, this chop motion method which was worthy of the Karate Kid. The idea was to use the vertically flat hand, make a vertical movement over the object and center of the compass and read the imaginary intersection with the graduation. A kind of chopping movement. We checked it but the bearing with the chop method was, if done right, not more off then 2 degrees which is not too bad.

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Call me KC, Karate Captain.


Don’t get over enthusiastic and break the glass.


A couple of degrees is fine in traffic.

Weaving through traffic I normally use courses in multiples of five, that is courses ending in five or zero. Not only easier to estimate It’s also a little easier for the helmsman steering in hand, easy to remember and communicate etc.

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Paperback facsimile reprint of Burdwood’s Sun’s True Bearing Or Azimuth Tables (1918)

Most captains required that at least once a day an azimuth was taken, if possible, at sunrise and/or sunset. The error was noted in the logbook. Sometimes also in a small notebook. With the Burdwood’s tables it was easy and required no calculations.

A star fix without the help of a calculator was quite an exercise in these days. Short cuts were taken by most such as Ageton that was very popular then due to the simplicity.

Each watch officer was expected to take an azimuth once per day. On one ship we had a competition to see who could get A to Z in the names of stars the quickest. The things one did to pass the time on tankers.

We called it ‘tankeritis’. We use to held steering competitions, who could steer for 10 minutes the straightest course on the course recorder. The winner had to buy beer for the others…

Not the finest was that we taped arms and legs of the 2nd engineer, who had a few too may, and started to scream in the morning because he thought he was paralyzed. For weeks he tried to find out who taped him. He was a big fellow…


Here it was my turn to be a birthday victim.

Another one was to declare that it was somebodies birthday, congratulate him abundantly and carried him around on the shoulders. Free drinks on the poor victim. Sigh…

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I remember one third engineer who was notoriously late for the12 to 4. The other third was a very large Geordie who picked up an anvil from the engine room workshop and laid it on the other guy’s chest while he was still in his bunk. As he left the cabin he was heard to say “if you won’t come down to the engine room I will bring the bloody place up here.” I think there were more adjectives but I was in the forward accommodation.
Geordie- inhabitant of Newcastle and district of North East UK for example Hilarious portrayal in Auf Wiederschen Pet.

An engineers joke was to nail shoes to the workbench and then waiting for the surprised look on the face of the victim when he tried to pick up the shoes…

Good yarn. Thanks ! :grinning:

Bowditch Vol. II, Table 35: the Ageton Method; Around the world in 36 pages!

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I was on a small ship in the med as an AB, the mate of the watch took an amplitude by turning the ship and steering right at the sun at sunrise and looked over the magnetic compass. It worked fairly well and it confirmed our suspicions that the gyrocompass was way off.

we steered by hand with the magnetic compass all the way to back the US

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I had a gyro failure on an AHTS. I used to manually set the sat B antenna and the antenna lined up with the bow. Steaming at the azimuth of the satellite until the messaging were completed by magnetic compasses.