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Even in this age of electronic wizardry, your steering compass is still a vital piece
of equipment. We use it steer a compass course when we are far from land, or just
to glance at to make sure the autopilot is keeping us on track.

Normally we employ the skills of a compass adjuster to set up our compass and to
create a ‘Deviation Card’. We can also do it ourselves when we are close to land
and have many visual references. It is a relatively easy task to take transits and
compare these to readings on our compass.

However, once at sea, we are devoid of lighthouses, headlands and useful transits.
We are forced to look to the skies and use the celestial bodies to check our
compass.

The 2 main methods employed are to compare our steering compass against
either;

 Azimuth (bearing) of a celestial body (usually the Sun)
 Amplitude (bearing of the Sun at Sunrise / Sunset)

Method 1 – Azimuth of a celestial body
When we reduce a body with our Sight Reduction calculations, our final answer
gives us an Intercept Towards or Away from the Azimuth (true bearing) of the
body. We can use this true bearing to check our compass.

Let us imagine we are using the Sun.

The Azimuth is the true bearing from our position to the Sun, so all we need to do
is to compare this angle with the compass bearing of the Sun.

To do this we apply the rules we learnt in basic navigation;

True The Azimuth of the Sun from our sight reduction
Variation Variation from the Chart (+West or –East)
Magnetic Bearing having applied the variation
Deviation The error in the compass (What we are trying to find)
Compass The compass bearing of the Sun

4.6 157
50 25
50 20.4

Example;

We get a compass bearing of the sun as 165
Our sight reduction gives us a true bearing as 157
The variation from the chart is 5 West

True 157
Variation 5 W
Magnetic 162
Deviation 3 W (the Deviation is W because we have to Add it)
Compass 165

Method 2 – Amplitude
Amplitude tables tell us the bearing of the sun when it rises and sets. We can
measure the bearing of the sun on our steering compass as the sun rises or sets.
We can then compare this angle with our tables to find compass error. Amplitude
tables can be found in the Reeds Nautical Almanac and Navigational Tables like
Norries.

To find the true bearing we need to know our Latitude (rounded to a whole degree)
and the Declination of the Sun (rounded to a whole degree). Declination can be
found in any Nautical Almanac as well as Reeds and Norries. The resultant
bearing now needs a bit of manipulation depending on whether we are looking at
sunrise or sunset and whether the Declination is North or South.

Imagine the bearing from the table is 80 (79.8 rounded).

The 80 is in relationship to whether we are looking West or East and whether the
Declination is North or South;

North (Declination)
South (Declination)
West (Sunset)
East (Sunrise)
80
80
180-80=100
80
180+80=260
80
360-80=280

The bold figures indicate the True bearing of the sun in relationship to True North
(This is what we need to know)

Summary of above diagram;
If we are headed West and are observing the sunset and the suns declination is north, then the 80
is West of North i.e. 280

If we are headed West and are observing the sunset and the suns declination is south, then the 80
is West of South i.e. 260

If we are headed East and are observing the sunrise and the suns declination is north, then the 80
is East of North i.e. 80

If we are headed East and are observing the sunrise and the suns declination is south, then the 80
is East of South i.e. 100

Example;

We have taken a compass bearing of the sun as it is setting, it is 281.
Our latitude is 11, the Declination of the Sun 10 North.
The bearing given in the tables is 79.8, we’ll round that to 80.
We are heading West across the Atlantic; therefore the true bearing of the sun as it
sets will be 360 - 80 = 280

True 280
Variation 7 W
Magnetic 287
Deviation 6 E (the Deviation is E because we have to Subtract it)
Compass 281

Taking a Compass bearing of the Sun
Easier said than done! There are a number of methods;

Older style compasses were always built with a pin in the centre. This casts a
shadow over the card. The bearing to the sun is the reciprocal of this angle.

If you haven’t got a shadow pin, make one! Try holding a thin needle like a skewer
or knitting needle on the sunward side of the compass. Hold it so the shadow
passes through the centre of the compass, read the angle. The bearing to the sun
is the reciprocal.

Pelorus
Ships often carry a Pelorus. This is a compass grid with sights and is used to take
bearings. You can line the sights up on the sun to get its bearing.

Most yachts do not have a Pelorus!, However, make your own with a Portland
Plotter. I put a piece of ‘blu tack’ on the north and south markings and affix a long
matchstick in each one. Line up the matchsticks on the sun to get a bearing.

Take your Portland Plotter and stick a long matchstick / skewer etc. in the middle
of the plotter with ‘blu tack’. Put the plotter on the fore and aft axis of the boat and
set the plotter to the compass course you are steering and note the shadow cast.
The bearing to the sun is the reciprocal of that bearing.

Pointing the boats head at the sun

To take the bearing of the sun as it rises or sets, simply point the head of the boat
directly at the sun as it is on the horizon. The theory is that because most ocean
journeys are West to East or East to West, then you only need to change your
course a little to observe the sun, thus the deviation should be relevant for your
general course.

This method is no good if your general course is not close to West or East

Technically, due to refraction, the sun is on the horizon when it is half its diameter
above the horizon. This is when you need to take the compass bearing.