Our contemporary way of reading a compass is called the “three-figure” method, referring to the three numerals called out to the helmsperson by the navigator, as in “steer three-two-zero.” Early compass cards, however, were divided not into 360 degrees but into 32 points, each one equivalent to 11 degrees, 15 minutes, about the best the early ships could steer. Compass bearings were “East-Southeast” or “West by North.” Now you might think “West by North” would translate to 315 degrees, halfway between west at 270 and north at 360. But that’s “Northwest.” Instead, “West by North” is one point north of west or 281.25 degrees. The sequence from West to North in points is: W, W by N, WNW, NW by W, NW, NW by N, NNW, N by W, N. Film buffs may notice that Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” is not on this list, because, as the master of mystery knew, there is no such direction.
Later, things got uglier when, as navigational skills improved, points were divided into halves and quarters, yielding indecipherable directions like “East by North ¾ North.” Reciting these divisions was called “boxing the compass,” and I’m relieved it was in most instances replaced by our modern (actually ancient Babylonian) 360 degree system so I don’t have to know it. On my good days, I can count to 360.
Relative bearings in points were, for example, “two points on the starboard bow,” which translates to 022.5 degrees relative to the ship’s heading. Four points adds up to 045 degrees, voiced as “broad on the starboard bow;” 090 is “starboard abeam;” and 135 would be “broad on the starboard quarter.” A vestige of this practice can be found in the transition between the arc of sidelights and stern light that occurs at 22.5 degrees abaft the beam. Why not an even number? Because 22.5 degrees is two points abaft the beam.
So now you know just how to talk on those “sail like a pirate” days: “Aaaargh, matey, she’s hull down, one point forward of the port beam. Steer Southeast by East, sir.” Folks, just a little of this sort of thing will make a lasting impression on your shipmates. Trust me.