Irving Johnson's Compass

Original content by: Dr. Paul Goodwin

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

Following the America's Cup yacht race of 1930, Sir Thomas Lipton's entry, the Shamrock V, set sail for its return voyage to England.  Irving Johnson, renowned for his voyage around Cape Horn on the bark Peking, as well as his many voyages around the world, shipped aboard the Shamrock V as mate.  As they sailed into the Gulf Stream, they encountered a vicious hurricane.  A huge wave sheared off the deck bolts that secured the binnacle, including the stand and the steering compass, and sent it over the side of the yacht.  The event was described by Johnson in a letter sent to his mother from London on October 27th, 1930:

"On my morning watch with Peterson at the wheel, a heavy sea broke through the strong weather cloth in the mizzen rigging and sent Peterson feet higher than his head.  Lucky for him that he held on like death because he would have gone right over the life line.  When he came down he was on his knees but still had high as an ordinary man.  What a look came over his face when he tryed to find the compass.  The whole binnacle, stand, compass and all had vanished with the wave.  [...] I hauled out a boats compass and a binnacle that the Captain didn't know we had.  He said it was worth $500 to him, but we found that the compass card didn't turn it being 30 years old.  We found another boats compass that wouldn't fit in the binnacle for the old compass but it was rigged up after a fashion."

The standard compass, located amidships, was protected by a lifeboat on either side, while a man was stationed there to look at the compass and motion with his hands to the helmsman as to the proper course to steer.  This was a wholly unsatisfactory arrangement, so Irving rigged a makeshift compass and mounted it on the steering-gear box.  To see the compass at night, a wick was devised from sail twine and a canvas case, fashioned to keep the light from blowing out or being soaked.  However, despite their efforts, the light frequently went out.  In Irving's words, "It was, in fact, quite tempermental."  When this happened, a sailor had to hold a flashlight on the compass so the helmsman could steer.  The light "might go out twenty or more times in a single night...The crew cussed it for an awful nuisance, but you couldn't have hired them to part with it in our predicament."

Following a very hard passage of 19 days, the Shamrock V reached London.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. What does this compass tell you about the value of improvisation? Have you ever had to improvise at something?
  2. Without the background information on Irving Johnson or the situation that Shamrock V encountered, this compass would seem to be just an ordinary object. How important do you think background information is to objects, especially to museums?
  3. How would you characterize Irving Johnson? Based on his description of this voyage, what type of man do you think he was?