The hand bearing compass is our constant and essential navigational companion.
Here's 9 of the best tried and tested hand bearing compasses.
The hand bearing compass is essential for a range of jobs around the boat. We take a look at the best tried and tested hand bearing compasses, used for swinging the ships compass, to accurate pilotage and general coastal navigation. We can also use them to take a fix on ships or other vessels, informing them which bearing to look in order to find us.
I keep a range of hand bearing compasses onboard my Dehler 36. Each arrived by dint of happy circumstance, as gifts and personal choice. From the discontinued autohelm electronic compass that I used to navigate with on my parents boat as a teenager, to the more current models. Here’s my take on the best hand bearing compasses currently available on the marketplace right now including those I have tried and tested.
We’ll have a look at the three fundamental different styles of hand bearing compass and look at which might suit you for any given circumstance. There’s the hockey puck style, which is compact, circular shaped and fits within the palm of a hand and used close to the face for sight taking. Then there’s the wand or pistol grip style held at arms length. Finally we have the sighting compass built into a marinised binocular. Each have their merits.
9 of the best hand bearing compasses
Plastimo Iris 50
The ubiquitous hockey puck style of hand bearing compass. It’s virtually indestructible, has zero electronics and budget friendly.
I can’t find a negative point for this compass, but that’s probably because I don’t wear glasses. The hockey puck style requires you to hold the compass up to your eye/cheek to take a sighting. This is fine, but if you wear glasses, it might get in the way.
The chunky rubber grip will suit just about any hand, the extra wings that stick out give it directional grip. You’ll know its shape in the dark instinctively, always knowing which way it’s facing.
It is easy to use with gloves on too. It glows in the dark like a mini beacon after just a few seconds of the old headtorch in the pocket trick. Night and day, you’ll not go wrong with this iconic little compass.
Reasons to Buy: Indestructible, glows brightly, easy to read, directional shaped grip
Reasons to Avoid: Not great for glasses wearers
Plastimo Iris 50 Bearing and Orientation Compasss
Prices from £53.84
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Weems Hand Bearing Compass
The premium brand Weems and Plath is my go-to for a variety of navigational equipment, including dividers and drawing compasses and so on. You know you will get a high quality item and it’s a trustworthy brand. However, I think they could probably do a little better with their hand bearing compass.
Yes, it is a quality bit of kit. But it is missing that ergonomic grip that helps the user position it in the hand by feel. It glows brightly once charged by torch light and it has a vertical view window so that you can use it as a steering compass at a pinch. It comes with a floating strap lanyard so that if you drop it in the water, it floats. Though, good luck fishing it out if you are underway. Rather over priced and there are better (identical) options available.
Reasons to Buy: Great built quality, indestructible, glows brightly at night, floating lanyard
Reasons to Avoid: Very expensive, hard to find, non directional grip
Prices from $241
Axium3 Handbearing Compass VION
Do you feel like you have déjà vu? This Vion Axium3 is almost the exact copy of the Weems and Plath at half the price (who copied who, we’re not sure – ed). It’s available from your friendly local chandlery too.
The same criticisms apply regarding the positional grip, though some prefer the smaller overall footprint of this compass. It’s just as indestructible as the other puck style hand bearing compasses and glows after being charged with a torch. It too has the vertical view window allowing you to use it from a static point as a fixed compass.
Some prefer the floating padding of this lanyard around their neck, though others consider it a bit of extra bulk to stow untidily. This is without doubt an excellent compass and really, it’s down to personal preference. The only additional item this has over the Iris 50 is the vertical view window.
Reasons to Buy: Great built quality, indestructible, glows brightly at night, floating lanyard
Reasons to Avoid: Non directional grip, limited availability
Prices from £99.99
Autohelm Personal Compass
That good old Autohelm personal compass. Seen on boats since the 1980s.
I have no idea why they discontinued it as it’s still very popular. Mine must be 30 years old by now and still going strong.
Put the lanyard around your neck, line up one of the sights and press the button. Have a look at the readout. Do this two or three times for accuracy and you have your first fix. You can do multiple bearings and the compass will hold them in memory for you to then transfer to a chart.
If you want to have a constant bearing, then simply hold down the button for about 2 or 3 seconds and it will switch mode to constant compass mode. The batteries last ages. This is really great bit of kit and all the thrill of the bargain hunt too.
Reasons to Buy: Slimline, easy to store, very easy to use, clear readout
Reasons to Avoid: Discontinued, need to search for this secondhand
(only losing half a mark for the faff of finding it on the secondhand market)
Prices vary from £15 to £100. These are much sought after on the second hand market.
Here are a few options available at the moment:
Plastimo Iris 100
The Plastimo Iris 100 hand bearing and helm compass is a brilliant bit of kit to have onboard. I’ve been lucky enough to have sailed on several boats equipped with one of these. It’s versatile and easy to use. It comes in a variety of iterations with different coloured bezels. There’s an option for an internal light and there’s a race card version too.
It’s not quite as indestructible as the hockey puck hand bearing compasses but it’s not far off. The compass card and dome is clear and easy to read. When equipped with a light, it’s bright enough to see with but not dazzling. The pistol grip style of hand bearing compass won’t interfere with glasses wearers either as it’s held at arms length.
It comes with a housing that can be mounted near the helm or on a vertical part of the bulkhead coaming so that it can double up as a compass to steer by. You need to take a little more care with this compass though as the dome is rather exposed and can be scratched over time. It does come with a nice little bag though for stowage.
Reasons to Buy: Versatile, easy to use, great value for money
Reasons to Avoid: Not as easy to stow in small vessels
Prices from £75
A smart hand bearing compass from Silva. It comes in two versions, the un and the une. The latter has internal illumination. Much like the Iris 100 this can be mounted vertically to use as a steering compass and can be quickly and easily removed from the mount for sight taking. The card is clear and easy to read in all lighting levels. It feels fractionally more refined than the Plastimo compass but there’s very little in it. The round stem of the pistol grip can be a little easy to spin in the hand when wet.
Reasons to Buy: Easy to use, good internal light (where fitted), easy to read
Reasons to Avoid: No lanyard or stowage bag to protect the dome
Prices from £89.99
Davis hand bearing compass
Traditionalism rules with this Davis hand bearing compass. It has been around in this unaltered, unfettered version for decades. Some mariners swear by it. The pistol grip is designed for a man-sized hand and feels reassuringly chunky, though all plastic.
The two sights are easy to line up and the dome, whilst not the best out of this little selection, is still relatively easy to read. It’s a good budget option, but if you want a pistol grip multi function compass I’d stretch that bit more to the Iris 100.
Reasons to Buy: Popular and easy to use, easy to line up objects
Reasons to Avoid: Dated style, fragile appendages can be snagged or broken if not stowed carefully, bulky to stow
Prices from £50
Steiner Navigator Pro 7×50
These Steiners were a game changer for me. Piloting around a fuzzy British coastline went from roughly there or thereabouts to spot on accuracy. They’re great boat binoculars but they’re also excellent for pilotage and coastal navigation. The compass is visible inside the right eye piece. The readout has a little pointer, so it is very easy to line up a headland or object in the distance.
They also have a night light, which falls easily under the index finger next to the compass body. Whilst they’re obviously heavier (1.1kg) than a dedicated single purpose hand bearing compass, they’re so quick and easy to use you wont mind. They’re not without a few little flaws, but not many. I highly recommend these if your budget allows.
Reasons to Buy: Accuracy par excellence, easy to use, push button night light, robust
Reasons to Avoid: The strap comes with sub-par metal fittings
Prices from: £399
Silva Eterna Navigator 3
I had the joy of using these on a client’s boat this summer. As per the Steiners above, they immediately inspire confidence in pilotage. Having a compass built into an eye piece makes such a difference to coastal navigation. You may find you rarely reach for the single purpose type of hand bearing compass again.
Dressed in ruggedised bright yellow, these are easy to find in a dark cubby hole and you’ll rarely misplace them. The internal compass is fractionally less refined than the Steiner’s as this one doesn’t have the extra pointer. I found the longer barrels on these binoculars slightly more difficult to hold steady in a rolly seaway and the strap, a chunky floatation type, was rather annoying on my neck, but I am being picky.
They weigh pretty much the same, coming in at 1.15kg and have a built-in push button night light. At half the price of the Steiner Navigator, these are a much more budget-friendly option to combine accurate hand bearing compass with binoculars. Highly recommended.
Reasons to Buy: Rugged, easy to find in the dark, built-in compass
Reasons to Avoid: Long barrels can be difficult to hold steady, chunky strap not to everyone’s taste
Prices from £190
- Check out our guide the the best marine binoculars or handheld boat GPS units
- For guidance on how to swing a compass you can read more about that at PBO.co.uk
- If you’re thinking of doing a day skipper course, then read more about that at YachtingMonthly.com
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