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Old-School Plotting & Navigation Tools For The Discriminating Mariner – Part I

This post begins a series that will periodically focus on older, or just plain old, practices, technologies and equipment that still have functionality and usefulness in the present-day work environment. The subject du jour is paper charts and, more specifically, the tools we use to plot (plot?) on them. Yes, believe it or not, you might actually want (or need) to do that every now and again should the electronic gizmos fail. You may well find yourself in the position of having to physically plot a course, fix your position, calculate safe distances, figure out eta’s, etc. Wouldn’t it be nice to have quality tools with which to work?

We’ll start with the “latest” in old technology; the pencil compass. Over the years I’ve occasionally seen them in the wheelhouses of various vessels. Usually they are cheap crap, like what we “old folks” used in grade school back in the day. But Weems & Plath has now brought out the heavy artillery, the German-made Professional Brass Pencil Compass.


As you can plainly see, this is old-school done right: 8 inches of heavy solid brass with a stainless steel point and a large knurled knob for clamping the pencil securely in place. There’s no screwing around with those tiny “leads”, and it’ll swing up to a 24-inch circle. The angle of the pencil is adjustable, as well as its length. What the hell do you do with one? You can use it to plot a fix using three or more radar ranges while in coastal navigation. For voyage planning you can use it to mark off safe-distance ranges from various navigational aids or known hazards on a nautical chart. It could also serve as a leather punch or would be handy for piercing little cubes of cheese and fruit while enjoying a snack on the mid-watch. If the need arose it could work beautifully as a stabbing weapon while you’re engaged in desperate, hand-to-hand combat with boarding parties of Somali pirates. The uses are practically endless! It lists for $57.99 from W&P, but you can get it for just $46.99 at Landfall Navigation in Stamford, Ct.

Next up are dividers. You can get either straight leg…..


or one-hand versions…..


… 7 or 8-inch lengths. They’re made of polished brass with stainless steel points. Landfall has the straight patterns for $27.99 and $33.99 and the one-hand types for $37.99 and $40.99. They are heavy-duty. They exude quality when held in hand. They are built to be well used and to last. There’s a lot to be said for those qualities in our stupendously wasteful, throw-away society.

Now it’s time for parallel rules, and forget about aluminum arms: you want brass whenever it’s available for the weight and steadiness it brings. Weems & Plath still makes them in a 15-inch length, which is generally the most useful size on a cramped chart table.


If you need a larger size then aluminum-legged it must be, but at the 24-inch length the overall weight is inherently greater so knocking them out of alignment as you walk them is somewhat less of a problem than with the smaller sizes.