We don't need no stinking compass

Here is Capt Doug, he made many trips to Alaska and I never saw him use the chart or the compass.

It’s not really about the lack of an anemometer, it’s the big picture.

For example when I worked on the Aleutian freighters I made the last few trips with no reliable or properly working compass. Our gyro went out one trip and the magnetic had an unknown error which varied from 30 to 90 degrees, the error depended on heading and what deck cargo we had.

The first hour or so the night the gyro went out on the inside passage was tough but after that it got easier and easier to do without. Made several trips Seattle to Dutch without.

So what’s the lesson learned? That ships don’t need reliable compass? Mariners that think compasses are important are poor seaman?

That was the lesson learned at TOTE, apparently it wasn’t that the company wouldn’t fix the anemometer, the crew didn’t think they needed one.

No one could imagine a scenario in which an anemometer could be helpful because any mariner worth this salt can read the sea, look at the smoke… etc, etc.

There was no plan to monitor the weather as they encountered Joaquin, they thought the computer display of wx info was sufficient.

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But you probably had a working GPS. For those of us that remember navigation before satellite navigation a properly adjusted compass and an up to date compass error book were vital in overcast conditions.
The other problem with small crews was the loss of the autopilot when the gyro failed.

Once you get good at navigating Seattle to Alaska ports without it’s easy. When I complained to the office they said you made it to Dutch and back last trip without, why do you need it fixed? Ok then, off we go.

I agree that a lot of mariners would consider a compass critical equipment, just not the ex-fishermen I was working with.

As far as how to, you’re right that steering by hand would be tedious but the autopilot was some kind of magnetic device. Maybe a fluxgate? Not sure. No heading readout of any kind but once the ship is put on the heading desired flip the autopilot on and it maintained heading, whatever it was.

This was pre-GPS, we had a LORAN C. On the Seattle to Dutch run when we left the coast at Cape Decision, Cross Sound or whatever you could set the course by eye/radar, then after an hour plot a LORAN fix an adjust as required. Our error/leeway was about the same with or without a compass.

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Magnetic compass is required per SOLAS:
The exception being if there are three totally individual gyros in full operational condition.

You may have got away with having no working compass, but if you should have met with an accident your legal standing (and any insurance claim) would have been in peril.


FFS, my analogy was aimed @DeckApe who I think would get it. This is it:

Almost everyone agrees that ships need an accurate and reliable compass. Except the ex-fisherman that owned / worked on the Aleutian freighter where I was mate, back in the day. They thought it was a “nice to have item”

Likewise evidently many mariners feel that an anemometer is an unnecessary luxury. In my experience that’s not true. And yes, I am aware there are other ways to estimate the wind, there are also other ways to estimate a ship’s heading.

We had a magnetic compass, the error was around 30-90 degrees and changed with heading and deck load. Not useful for determining actual magnetic heading.

For people unfamiliar with Aleutian Freighter, they were considered under the Magnuson Act to be equivalent to uninspected fishing vessels.

Nobody, at least when I worked there, even knew about SOLAS much less cared. When the CG came aboard they looked for drugs and left as we sometimes use to rendezvous offshore.
Here’s the book, Aleutian Freighter: A History of Shipping in the Aleutian Islands

Here’s the blurb;

Unique among U.S. maritime cargo operations, the Aleutian trade is and has always been carried on by small break-bulk cargo vessels, through severe weather, and a grueling schedule; not an industry for the weak, timid, or foolhardy.

I was the mate, not weak, timid, or foolhardy, legal peril wasn’t something I worried about.


Ha ha. It’s blissssss…


SOLAS does not apply to very many vessels in the US coastal trade. Maybe 10% of coastal vessels and most of those are OSVs.

Ah. The good old days.

With regard to equipment in general, I often hear “you made the trip back ok without it, you can make another trip without it.”

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The Bugis of Sulawesi has sailed the seas of the Malay Archipelago in their Praus (aka Bugis Schooners) since time immemorial and never used a compass:

Many of these vessels are still seen around Indonesia, but now with engines, although they may still carry sails.

Here a picture from the the old port in Jakarta, Sunda Kelapa:

Still full of Praus trading all over Indonesia, even as far as West Papua

Some years ago I did a Loss Prevention Study for Underwriters at a building site for a Pulp mill under construction in East Kalimantan. I took some visitors from Canada to see a Bugis Prau loading logs across the river. They were very impressed by the wood fired oven in the galley and the toilet amenities hanging over the stern.

In the Wheelhouse I pointed out that the Bugis still sailed all over Indonesia without any modern instruments, not even a compass, when the Serang(Skipper) went to his cabin and came back with a compass in a wooden box. He put it up on the window sill and said “Ada Kompas sadja”.
Apparently it was a legal requirement to have one on board the large Praus, but they didn’t use it.

Telling some ex-fishermen in Alaska that they need a compass would be like telling me I need one in my canoe to paddle around on the lake, it doesn’t make sense.

But if you do have and use a compass, there is also an entire set of tools and crew training used to keep a nav paper plot. Get rid of any one tool and the task of navigation, using that method becomes more difficult. It’s part of a system.

For my operation an anemometer plays a key role in my entire weather awareness program, ops limits in ports as has been mentioned, wind limit call points while at anchor, careful and methodical observations and recording of wx data. If I had to do without I would have to adjust my whole program. Maybe anchor further out for example.

Same can be said for the ECDIS, It’s not just something we use in isolation.

Same as a sextant, I don’t really need an accurate fix to navigate in open oceans, or coastwise, you can build an emergency get-home system on DRs.

There’s some amount of BS being talked here!


Please define your definition of BS.

Magic autopilot with no heading input?

Heading input was ship’s head. Once the ship was on the desired heading the steering was switched from hand to auto. It would then maintain that heading.

Technically it was a compass or part of the magnetic compass, it wasn’t accurate or reliable because of the very large error varied by heading and deck load. Not a usable compass in the traditional sense but sufficient for the auto pilot.

What is a Fluxgate ?

The fluxgate magnetometer is a magnetic field sensor for vector magnetic field. Its normal range is suitable for measuring earth’s field and it is capable of resolving well below one 10,000th of that.
It has traditionally been used for navigation and compass work as well as metal detection and prospecting. Not difficult to construct it is often forgotten in today’s world of silicon and MEMS devices.

This piece of equipment is related to the topic, it’s called an autohelm fluxgate.


Not something most mariners would call a compass. I’m not sure how ours worked. It would keep the ship on course.

Here is another one: - It’s $15

The difference (other than generation) between the $15 part and the $2000 (or whatever) one is the gimbaling necessary to keep it exactly horizontal under all conditions. Aside from that it needs the same clean magnetic environment as any compass.

If you look at this shot mostly behind the door frame in front of Doug a little bit of the gyro repeater can be seen,

Here’s a shot of Chief Al, between the two yellow compensation spheres (navigator’s balls) the top of the magnetic compass can be seen. The auto pilot mechanism bridges across the top of the compass. It’s hard to see but there is a small knurled knob just above the stbd ball on the auto pilot. Course changes could be made by turning that knob. That’s probably where Doug has his left hand in the first photo.

Because the magnetic compass heading couldn’t be trusted the knob could be turned (you could hear a relay energizing and see the rudder angle indicator move) till the desired gyro course was reached.

Of course after the gyro failed you’d just set the course by eye, either steering by hand or by mike. The throttles and steering joy stick can also be seen.

One more shot, alongside in Dutch, the Snowbird, in all her non-SOLAS glory.

Photos are mine but also posted on this thread; YO and FS Hulls

Was the Snowbird a US Army vessel from WWII?

In 1972 I was Assistant Port Captain in Bangladesh. We operated 4 tankers on UN charter on the rivers. One of which was an ex US Army tanker that looked very much the same as the Snowbird (Except the derricks)

Very similar, it was built in the 40s. The tankers were YO and the freighters were FS.

The Snowbird was sister to the ship from the movie "Mr. Roberts.