The compass rose

Paul Smith
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There was a time in our history when just about everybody knew which way was north. That has changed.

My dory compass that I’ve owned since I was 19. — Photo by Paul Smith/Special to The Telegram

These days, the majority of folks have no idea about magnetic directions.

I know for sure and certain that young people are oblivious to any notion of orientation on the planet.

I teach physics at the post-secondary level and I attempt to educate mostly students fresh out of high school. I do get some who tote along with them to the classroom up to a decade or so of life experience.

The younger kids sometimes even confuse east with west; not knowing which side of Canada they are living in. We do vector problems in mid-September and this lack of practical navigation knowledge is glaringly obvious.

Young folk with more life experience generally know east from west, but if dropped in strange woods would have absolutely no idea how to use a magnetic compass to any advantage.

 I once had a student with five years of military experience who had no idea how to find north without a compass. I’m sure the army teaches this stuff. I’m hoping he just wasn’t paying attention that day.

Then there’s the odd student that has fished, hunted, or hiked and knows plenty about finding their way around the woods and waters. This is most refreshing, but sadly they are about one in a hundred by my statistical reckoning.

I’ll bet my hunting boots that if I taught in Newfoundland a century ago, just about every kid would know the compass points and be very aware of which way they were facing in the classroom. And they would certainly know which way the wind was blowing.

Yes, indeed, I know middle-aged men and women who only refer to the wind as in or out, up or down, whatever that means. (I’m being facetious. I know their meaning, but really, couldn’t you muster up a northwest or southeast, just for old time’s sake? After all, we were once a nation of seafaring fishers, and international sailors.)

My mother taught me to box the compass when I was a little kid tugging on her dress hem. I guess I bored easily, particularly on rainy days.

I might be exaggerating a tad with the dress hem, but I could rhyme off the compass points at a pretty tender age. There were no video games, or even television when I lived in St. Anthony. I guess my parents used stuff like compass trivia and recitations about characters like Sam McGee to keep me occupied.

 I also learned to play a mean game of 45s, and knew all too well the versatile value of the ace of hearts. Mom told me later in my teenage years that she learned the compass in school and figured she’d pass it on to me. It was dropped from the curriculum by the time I warmed a seat in the classroom.  

Reciting all 32 points of the mariners’ compass going clockwise from north is no small feat for a kid.

I wonder how many of you know what I’m going on about here?

Did any of you learn this in school? I’d be very interested to know, so please email me.

It goes like this: north, north by east, north northeast, northeast, northeast by east, east northeast, east by north, east, east by south, east southeast; and so on till you arrive back at north.

There was a time when every school kid knew this off by heart, or so my mom said.

Was it useless information steeped in silly tradition? I think not.

If you rowed to the fishing grounds on a clear morning heading NNE and the fog rolled in while you were catching your supper, you knew without having to even think about it which way to return home. You just reverse each direction and row home calmly on a heading of SSW, arriving just in time for lunch.

Our kids don’t row out in boats anymore. And even if they did, surely the boat would be fully equipped with a chart plotter and GPS. You can even download a navigation app for your smartphone.

All this old compass nonsense is surely a relic from a bygone era. Maybe so, but I think there is intrinsic value in knowing fundamental stuff that people who walked the Earth before us figured out and made part of the culture and knowledge necessary for survival, like knowing how to light a campfire and hone a knife.

I think we have become far too dependent on digital technology and others doing stuff for us and taking care of our safety and well-being.

How many of us carry basic survival gear in our cars, or have some sort of backup heat in our homes?

For me, not knowing how to use a compass is a symbol of where we are headed with modern technology.

I hope the satellites never stop bleeping out their signals during the recreational cod fishery or moose season. There are plenty of folks in the woods and on the water depending 100 per cent on their global positioning systems.

Batteries and satellites fail, but the Earth’s magnetic field is rock-solid dependable.

Don’t go in the woods without a compass, and take the time to learn its secrets.


I’ll end this week with a bit of navigation history and tradition.

Sailors of the Mediterranean Sea invented the classical compass rose of eight winds, followed by its more precise 16-wind and 32-wind derivatives.

This was long ago during the Middle Ages.

I have an eight-point version tattooed on my right shoulder.

It was my first tattoo and I consider it a symbol of my outdoor life.

The compass rose divides the 360 degrees of a full circle into four main directions called cardinal winds.

These are, of course north, south, east, and west. Then each quarter circle is halved into northeast, southwest, and so on. These are given the name ordinal or intercardinal directions.

On TV weather programs, that’s about as precise as it gets for day-to-day wind forecasting. Ryan Snoddon uses an eight-wind compass rose like the one on my arm.

For maritime use and increased precision, each one-eighth sector is bisected by another line, commonly referred to as a half wind. There are eight of these and they include north northeast, east northeast, and so forth.

Marine forecasts might include half winds.

Certainly navigation on sea or land requires at least a half wind or 16-point compass.

One more division by halves yields a quarter wind or 32-point compass.

Quarter winds include north by east, northeast by north and onwards around the rose.

This is as precise as it gets without going to digital compass bearings.

Each wind on a 32-point compass is only 11-1/4 degrees apart.

That’s plenty good for rowing a dory loaded with cod back to a waiting schooner. It will get you home from hunting on the foggy barrens as well.

And there are no batteries or memory cards required.

(Do you know they don’t teach our kids cursive handwriting anymore?)

 Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted


Geographic location: Canada, Newfoundland, St. Anthony Mediterranean Sea

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