A point of the compass was, in the early days of the square-rigged ship, about the smallest division to which an average helmsman could steer by wheel, but with the growing efficiency in the rig of these vessels it was later possible for a good helmsman to hold a course between the points. This led to the introduction of half and quarter points, the half point measuring 5° 37.5′ and the quarter point 2° 48.75′.
The requirements of more efficient coastal navigation which came from the growing volume of shipping, and particularly with the realization of the effect of variation and deviation, on both the course steered by the ship and the accuracy of the compass bearings in fixing its position on a chart, led to the abandonment of points as a means both of steering a vessel and of taking bearings. They were replaced by degrees, each quadrant being divided into 90°, with the courses and bearing being read from the two cardinal points of north and south. Thus a ship with a magnetic compass that might formerly have steered a course of, say, NE by E., would steer a course of N. 56° E.
For many decades now the compass has simply been divided into 360°, known as the three-figure method, and the helmsman steers by one of those degrees, but the term ‘point’ lingered on at sea for some time to express approximate bearings in relation to the ship's head. A lookout, on sighting another vessel at sea, would report its position as being, for example, two points on the starboard bow, or a point abaft the port beam Nowadays such positions are reported in relation to red (port side) and green (starboard side). For example, another vessel sighted four points on the starboard side is reported as bearing Green 45. See also points of sailing.
Points of the compass
Subjects: Maritime History.