Steering Toward Summer

On May 1, a small clump of Coreopsis blooming at the edge of a Brazoria County ditch brought an immediate smile. The combination of flower and buds looked remarkably like a ship’s binnacle, with its compass in the middle and correcting balls at either side.

Binnacle on the 1885 cargo ship Wavertree ~ South Street Seaport Museum

Local distortions of the earth’s magnetic field can make a compass inaccurate for navigational use, but some of the distortions, particularly those caused by the ship itself, remain fairly constant. Those errors are corrected by using small adjuster magnets, iron rods, or compensating balls incorporated into the binnacle, like those shown above. While the devices themselves also distort the local magnetic field around the compass, they’re arranged in a way that corrects compass headings.

The process of correcting a compass using various devices, called ‘swinging the compass,’ is complex. Even after adjustments are made, residual errors exist. So-called ‘deviation cards’ record known compass errors for all headings of the ship, and help to make accurate navigation possible.

Given our current conditions, I’d say this Coreopsis compass was perfectly adjusted; we’re making way, and the shore of summer is in sight.


Comments always are welcome.

52 thoughts on “Steering Toward Summer

  1. I have a single plant growing in a pot in the patio. It grows by leaps and bounds overnight. In a single day it produced tight buds that never take long to open. The pot was full of flowers two years ago, refused to re-sow again until last week. An interesting gray green spider seems to have become its resident protector. I took several rather poor photos yesterday. I blame the wind and Saharan sand.

    Thanks for schooling us about this beautiful flower. And the binnacle!

    1. I really enjoy all of the Coreopsis species; they’re bright and cheerful, and provide a nice splash of yellow in the landscape. I’m glad you have some, and that they seem to be reviving. I certainly understand the difficulty of getting photos in our current conditions. I noticed the haze developing yesterday afternoon, and it looks as though we’re going to have Saharan skies for a couple of days.

    1. No matter the calendar, summer’s well and truly here; at least it seems so by the huge stands of sunflowers and rosinweed that have emerged. Yellow does catch the eye, even at a distance, and it combines so well with a whole variety of other colors. It always makes me smile.

    1. That’s lake weather, Jeanie. I hope you’ll be able to get up there soon, and maybe paint a flower or two of your own. There’s nothing wrong with ‘home flowers,’ but lake flowers are special — maybe you’ll find a few suns of your own.

    1. Today, the compass is differently housed, but people still talk about a compass ‘housing.’ From what I’ve read, ‘binnacle’ shows up a good bit in crossword puzzle word lists, often with a clue that references the ‘little house’ in which it’s kept.

    1. Experience certainly shapes the way we see the world. Years of sailing and working in a marine environment probably predispose me to make connections like this one. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s often so obvious to me I can’t help laughing.

    1. Isn’t that the truth? And no matter the accuracy of the compass, learning to steer a good compass course is just as important. I spent plenty of time making S-curves in the water until I developed the knack!

    1. Don’t I remember that you have some coreopsis of your own? They’re such a light, pretty flower. Today’s binnacles are quite different — no more iron balls — but the function’s just as important, and their history is fascinating.

            1. It was so, so beautiful. I must say, I miss spring. It lingered this year, but our heat and humidity have done away with it now.

  2. Whenever Gini sees that bloom and bud arrangement (which seems to occur often with Coreopsis), she says: “Look, she has thrown up her arms to welcome us!”

    Steering a course for a favorable anchorage in a seasonal bay or tossing up welcoming hands, we are always happy to see the bright yellow flowers of summer.

    1. I like Gini’s interpretation — Coreopsis does seem to be a sociable little flower. Of course, from what you’ve said of Gini, I’m sure any of the flowers are more than happy to welcome her!

      As for summer yellows, just yesterday I noticed that Helianthus anuus has moved into a local road construction site and is doing its own sort of battle with various pieces of machinery and huge drainage pipes. It seems as though any human detritus that isn’t moved in a couple of days will have its personal bouquet. It can’t last, but it’s still fun to see.

    1. I enjoy watching the various ships that ply the Houston ship channel — tankers, container ships, car carriers and such — but there’s nothing like a little ship carrying color and beauty!

  3. As long as we all appreciate Coreopsis for its sunny disposition, I’m okay with any other interpretation of its configuration.

    1. It does have a sunny disposition: as much as sunflowers, for sure. I enjoy seeing large colonies of these spreading across the land, but a single bloom can be equally entrancing.

  4. Linda, thank you for the interesting lesson on ships and their compasses. Obviously, this land-locked Central Illinois girl doesn’t know much of anything about ships, yet I find them fascinating! And what a beautiful flower — such a happy color!

    1. Don’t forget that one of our country’s main shipping lanes may be closer to you than it is to me: the Mississippi River. One of our favorite things to do when visiting family in Illinois when I was a kid was to make a detour to the locks, and watch the barges heading north and south. Even though those barge captains can see either side of the river, they still use aids to navigation — including compasses.

      These are bright, cheerful flowers — and I suspect they’d grow well for you!

  5. Lately, I feel like I’ve crashed right into summer! While I’m not thrilled with the heat, that coreopsis looks as fresh as a daisy.

    1. Your temperatures have been higher than ours, although I think we have you beat in the humidity department, so things even out. I have some co-workers who prefer these conditions to winter, but I have to disagree; I’m already looking forward to September — or, more likely, October.

      I was without a car for nearly three weeks thanks to supply chain issues, but I have it back now, and I’m trying to psyche myself up for a weekend trip to Walden West. After a week of working on the docks, air conditioned weekends sound pretty good, but I can’t bring myself to break the chain.

    1. Sometimes comparisons like this one are so obvious to me, no thought is required. It was great fun to find such a perfect flower, and to have it raise such nice memories. I’ve sailed just once on a tall ship that had such a binnacle, and it was quite an experience.

    1. Even with recent developments in marine electronics, magnetic compasses still are required on ships. Even GPS can go wonky, for a number of reasons, and although it mostly functions perfectly well, when it doesn’t, that backup is critical. That’s why manual course plotting and electronic plotting work hand in hand. Tevye may sing, “Tradition!” but good sailors sing “Redundancy!”

  6. Your ship recalls something I ran across on YouTube the other day, the old “Adventures in Paradise” TV show that supposedly took place in the South Pacific. I came within an inch of buying the show on DVD.

    1. Your comment sure did bring a smile. Some of us came to Gardner McKay and the “Leaky Tiki” via Jimmy Buffett. Both feature in one of my favorite Buffett songs. The line about “putting quarters in my loafers tryin’ to fight inflation when it only used to take a cent” is suddenly relevant.

  7. Only you would spot the similarities between those two- but you paired them well! Bingo – or ‘match!’ sort of like having 100 cards face down and trying to remember which ones match – did the coreopsis trigger a search for the second image in your files, or did the flower prompt you to seek and find a fresh example?

    1. I saw the flower first, and instantaneously thought, “Binnacle!” Then, as I was posting, I realized some people might not know what a binnacle was, so I decided to show the actual and the metaphorical together. There’s only one ship in our area (that I know of) that has this sort of traditional binnacle, and I couldn’t find an image of it, so I looked through the various seaport museum offerings.

      The U.S. Coast Guard tall ship was in Galveston this week, and I’ll bet it has the same sort of arrangement. It would have been fun to watch it arrive or leave port, but I’m hoarding my gas these days.

      1. Gas. Oh yes. I am really lucky to live in a small city and usually walk where I need to go —- and the refugio is about eight minutes from where I live if I drive there on weekends (little city traffic) — so I remain a frugal consumer of fuel. A friend from Mississippi said that she and three friends drove to the east coast for a short vacation – I find myself wanting to write and ask how much they spent on fuel…. I’m really glad that it costs so little to live here vs what it must be like in the USA now.

  8. Interesting reminder about “swinging the compass” and “deviation cards.” I’d run into that in small airplanes as well way back when, but time had dimmed the memory.

    1. I did some flying in small planes in Liberia, but didn’t begin to understand the navigational aspects of it until I began sailing. Then there came the day when I realized a wing and a sail are aerodynamically related. Voila!

    1. It really is a lovely example of a coreopsis: so fresh and undamaged. It tickled me no end to see it as a ship’s binnacle. Sometimes my imagination gets a little out of control.

    1. I sometimes surprise myself with the associations I make. For a while, I sailed, and then I became a sailor. I’m reminded of that from time to time, and this was one of those times. I was lucky to have instructors who taught me navigation and diesel mechanics as well as how to trim a sail, and threw in a few life lessons for good measure.

  9. Been summer for a while around here. The science around seafaring navigation is amazing. Makes you wonder how the earliest seafarers got where they were going.

    1. One of the most amazing navigational feats I’ve ever read about was the ability of South Sea islanders to use the shape, speed, and direction of waves to help them move from one island to another. If you’re ever in need of another good read, Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania is a good one. This is from the online synopsis:

      “In one of his most exotic and adventuresome journeys, travel writer Paul Theroux embarks on an eighteen-month tour of the South Pacific, exploring fifty-one islands by collapsible kayak. Beginning in New Zealand’s rain forests and ultimately coming to shore thousands of miles away in Hawaii, Theroux paddles alone over isolated atolls, through dirty harbors and shark-filled waters, and along treacherous coastlines. Along the way, he meets the king of Tonga, encounters street gangs in Auckland, and investigates a cargo cult in Vanuatu.”

      It’s so good I’ve read it twice.

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