This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)

Most of the yachtspeople now manage steering consoles similar to those of cars with plenty of hi-tech screens, touch-screens, sensors of any kind, liquid-crystal displays and so on. Among all these, that luminescent half sphere looks almost set to be forgotten in the memory drawer.

Yet the compass has been for centuries, and still is nowadays, the safest and most reliable instrument you may have on board. This is why it is useful not to lose the habit to have a look at it every now and then instead of keeping on staring the plotter multicolour screen.

This instrument, which was invented by the Chinese and then reached Europe over one thousand years ago, shows the cardinal directions used for navigation through a simple magnetic needle (and fixes the ship’s position by means of a sextant and clock). No power consumption, no consequence in case of blackout or (usually frequent) on board battery problems, maintenance-free, reduced cost are among its pros. In short, it works under any conditions and never betrays you. Only pay attention to install it correctly and make sure it is not influenced by magnetic fields generated by nearby equipment. And also remember that a compass is included in the mandatory equipment required for navigation over 6 miles from the coast.

Fluid compasses are the most common in the marine field. These use a magnetized needle inside a bowl completely filled with liquid to ensure the greatest stability. A compass card graduated in degrees from 0 to 360° (degree by degree or every 5 degrees) gives a certain approximation and makes these compasses especially suited for small-sized boats not sailing long distances. The compass bowl is closed by glass and the liquid inside is usually a mixture of distilled water and alcohol. The compass card is hold by a pin that rises from the bottom of the bowl. The compass bowl is suspended by gimbals in order to damp the vibrations of pitch and roll and keep the card horizontal at all times. Inside the bowl, the lubber line is marked. It arrives at a distances of a few millimetres from the compass card, on the longitudinal plan, in correspondence of which the heading angle can be read.

Not only the deck-mounted compass described above is useful on board, but also the so-called bussola a torcia, which, provided with a sort of viewfinder, allows to track a landmark, or –after more tracking – to fix the ship’s position. Also this instrument is not expensive and worthwhile to have on board.

Many different models of marine compasses are available on the market: recess-mounted, bracket-mounted, bayonet compass, backlit compass for night visibility, provided with built-in compensation system, with Flux Gate power supply to interface with other on board instruments and more.

Compass installation is definitely at everybody’s reach, however, always bear in mind your boat use and type. Bulkhead mount compasses are usually installed on sailboats, clearly visible to the helmsman (like e.g. RITCHIE Venturi Sail/Navigator Sail compasses ( Other compasses are more suitable for motor boats, like RIVIERA Zenit 3″ recess fit compass with telescopic anti-glare screen (

It goes without saying that magnetic declination and compass deviation have to be taken into account for the correct use of this instrument, issues that are (or should be) well known to sailing licence holders. Otherwise, to brush up the basics will do them good.

Bussole RITCHIE Venturi Sail / Navigator Sail

Bussola da incasso con copertura telescopica avvolgente RIVIERA Zenit 3