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June 1, 2007

The Man Behind Maine Compass Services

by Meg Miller

Navigating a boat in all sorts of unpredictable conditions means depending on the equipment you've installed onboard. Whether you're operating an hourly, year-round ferry service or a family boat on summer weekends, your investment might include GPS, autopilot, radar, depth finders, speed indicators and plotting and computer systems. One item that will definitely be on the list is an old-fashioned magnetic compass.

In this age of push-button navigation, a boat operator with old-school dead reckoning skills can still rely on the compass (invented in China thousands of years ago) when all electronic systems fail. In fact, the United States Coast Guard still requires a working compass on all marine vessels. So valuable is the compass that, during annual inspections, the Coast Guard will want to see written proof of its accuracy.

Charlie Cook of South Freeport owns Maine Compass Services, the 36-year-old company that provides compass check-ups, adjustments and a certified deviation card that shows this proof of accuracy when the job is done. Commercial marine enterprises from Boston to Southwest Harbor and pleasure boaters from Portsmouth to Camden rely on Cook. His expertise dates back to the early 1980s, when he began mentoring with the late Bill Rice, once considered the "top guru" in a very specialized and precise industry.

State ferries depend on Cook's services year-round, but other commercial vessel operators start calling around February. Pleasure boaters keep him busy right through the summer, with a short lull in August when most boats are off cruising. September starts the season for commercial fishing boats gearing up for winter months. Lots of business comes from tugboat operators, and even the Coast Guard depends on Cook's compass inspections and adjustments for its own fleet from Maine to Boston. Cook will adjust compasses on four to six craft per day, depending on the season.

"Every boat is different, whether it's wood, fiberglass or steel," Cook said. "Each has its own circumstance and reason for needing adjustment. For instance, the magnetic pull on a steel vessel can affect the compass in the cabin house and cause inaccurate readings."

Cook sometimes finds himself in the position of educating mariners about their compass and how it works. "It helps to understand that the card inside the compass with the cardinal headings (north, south, east and west) and inter-cardinal headings (northeast, southeast, northwest, southwest) printed on it stays in one place while everything else moves around."

Cook describes a typical day as the one he spent in Portsmouth, New Hampshire recently. He serviced the Thomas Laighton, the Isles of Shoals steamship gearing up for another busy season offering passenger cruises to the islands, lighthouses and other points of interest.

Arriving on board, Cook ran a couple of tests to check the pivot and the jewel inside the compass to make sure they swung freely. Once the vessel was underway (a necessity for proper adjustment), the steamship's captain steered all four cardinal headings. As with every job, Charlie used a battery-operated gyrocompass to indicate if the headings on the compass aboard the Thomas Laighton were accurate. "The gyro is affected by nothing, therefore it's completely stabilized and one hundred percent reliable. Therefore, if the vessel's compass shows it's eight degrees off of the gyro's heading, that means eight degrees must be adjusted," explains Cook.

After the cardinal headings are checked, Cook moves on to the inter-cardinal headings and makes corrections if necessary. He records his readings on the compass deviation card, which he leaves with the boat's owner.

When Cook is on board he also checks the electronic equipment to make sure it's giving accurate magnetic or true north information. "Sometimes several pieces of electronic equipment are giving heading readings," he said. "After these are adjusted, the heading information to the radar, autopilot, and computer systems will be within two degrees of the magnetic compass, which will set up a proper baseline reading all around."

Maine Compass Services relies on word-of-mouth advertising. According to Cook, "When you're prompt, provide good service, get the job done quickly and follow up, the boat owner will tell the person on the next slip or mooring, who tells the next person, and so on."

Charlie Cook can be reached at 207-865-6645.

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Meg Miller

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