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The Binnacle

"A binnacle is a waist-high case or stand on the deck of a ship, generally mounted in front of the helmsman, in which navigational instruments are placed for easy and quick reference as well as to protect the delicate instruments. Its traditional purpose was to hold the ship's magnetic compass, mounted in gimbals to keep it level while the ship pitched and rolled. A binnacle may be subdivided into sections and its contents typically include one or more compasses and an oil lamp or other light source. Other devices such as a sand timer for estimating speed may have been stored in the binnacle as well." (wikipedia)

The magnetic compass is also known as Kelvin's Compass and the green and red balls known as 'Kelvin's balls'.

For some time our binnacle had been in storage at Kellett Island but it was taken out and we decided to have it properly looked at. After consulting with the Museum of Coastal Defence, we were pointed in the direction of Captain Cheung at Kee Marine who at the time was Hong Kong’s only remaining qualified compass adjuster and repairer.

The work to be done was extensive and indeed lasted from December 2011 to June 2012. It included:

  • retrofitting the metal gears attached to binnacle including gimbals system, Flinder bar compartment, heeling magnet compartment, telescopic glasses inside binnacle, the copper hatch cover, removal of all excess wires, cleaning of all magnet chambers

  • repairing the compass bowl, draining of all oil and replacing with new clean oil, test and checking its function level

  • repairing the azimuth mirror

  • removing all the old paint from the binnacle surface and finishing with three layers of varnish

After its overhaul we kept it in the Chart Room throughout the Kellett Island Development project and then moved it to its current home in the Bistro in 2018.

We are of course intrigued to find out the history of our binnacle but so far no luck. It was another gift from the Royal Navy and Tamar at the time of the handover and it must have been salvaged from a ship at some point.

Looking inside, we see it houses a W. Ludolph magnetic compass made in Bremerhaven, Germany, bearing the serial number 12802/55. We did email W. Ludolph to see if they had any records but sadly no response.

We also noticed that someone engraved F.F. 16-5-69 onto the verge glass. The FF could refer to “First Fitting” when perhaps the glass was renewed. It could equally be someone’s initials in graffiti.


Further learning:

Fun fact: The port and starboard quadrantal correctors are also known as 'Kelvin's Balls'. after Lord Kelvin who patented this new system of compass, the Kelvin's Compass, in the 1880s which incorporated the two compensating spheres.

Here's a good YouTube video that walks you through the various parts of a Kelvin's Compass.


If you have ideas for future Ahoy Lite articles, or perhaps have always wondered about the history of something at the Club please email and we'll try our best to look into it for you!


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