Compass Burping for Beginners

While it’s fun to write wittily crafted posts that explore the conflicts, contradictions and consequences of a life afloat, sometimes we just want to share some info. One of our goals for this blog is to pass along some of the wisdom we gain as we transition from dirt dwellers to Life On The Hook. So here’s a little tidbit for you.

If you look around your boat, you’ll probably find a compass. Like anything else on a boat, your compass will probably need some maintenance eventually. When we bought Eagle Too, her compass looked like this:


Faded, scuffed, and containing a huge air bubble. It still worked, and for many sailors that may be good enough. But your compass is your last line of defense. When the day arrives where you’re way offshore, out of sight of land, and an electrical problem kills your navigation instruments, your compass is the one thing you can count on to safely guide you back to shore where you can at least drop anchor and swim to the beach if necessary. We like our compass, and we want it to be healthy, so this will not do.

Now you may be thinking, “Well, I’ll just get some compass oil and refill it, and it will be fine,” You would probably be wrong. Unless you have a vacuum chamber, you’re only going to be able to reduce the size of the bubble, not eliminate it entirely. Plus there’s that whole issue of what type of oil does your compass use, and where can you find some more? It’s not like you can run to Lowe’s and pick up a quart of compass oil after all. And even if you do manage to refill it successfully, there’s still the fact that your compass has a leak, which you haven’t fixed, and which will cause the bubble to come back again. Any decent compass includes a bellows assembly and seals and such that allows the oil to expand and contract with temperature changes, which is probably where your leak is, and how the heck do you get those parts?

No, this is a job for a professional. Probably like most compasses on recreational yachts, ours was made by Ritchie Navigation in Pembroke, Massachusetts. A brief internet search gave me their website, where they provided the details for their factory reconditioning program. A quick trip to the post office, and our Ritchie Helmsman was off to rehab.

Three weeks and $132 later, our compass came back tanned, rested, and ready for its close-up:



They even upgraded the internal light to the latest LED unit, all for less than half the cost of buying a new replacement. Damn it looks good. Now we have to clean and polish everything else on the pedestal to match…

4 thoughts on “Compass Burping for Beginners

  1. Chuck Hoover

    Thanks! I just this weeks sent mine to Ritchie and hoped it was the best alternative. Your confirmation is appreciated. Now, I’ll go ahead and start cleaning up the pedestal!’

  2. Bill Mains

    While sending a compass to Ritchie is one option, it isn’t the only option. Rebuilding the compass and replacing the o-ring and diaphragm is straightforward; all you need is a screw driver for that. Filling it with mineral spirits is a little trickier but not to bad with a syringe. I managed to get all out all the air except for a lentil-sized bubble, which luckily disappeared on its own after a week or two.

    Since it is a backup piece of equipment, for me this is good enough. And while electrical equipment can fail, as we both saw, so can compasses. If I truly did depend on it I probably would have sent it in, but I got the parts for a lot less money and had it fixed within a day.

    1. Robert Post author

      There are a lot of things onboard that I’ll dive into without reservation. This wasn’t one of them. I just felt better having it redone professionally. But I’m glad that you’re happy with your results. None of this is brain surgery, so anyone who’s reasonably handy can probably do it once they’re had some practice.


Care To Share Your Thoughts?