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A career in the right direction: Due north

For a living, George Rae makes sure boat compasses — the only thing that works when the power goes out — are working perfectly.

For as long as he can remember, George Rae went out on boats with his father.

His dad, originally from Scotland and a former member of the merchant navy, emigrated to Halifax for a job as a master mariner. He later got work as a compass adjuster and soon started his own company.

By the time Rae was 12, he wasn’t just tagging along on rides for fun. By age 18, he was doing the work himself.

“I was always intrigued and I loved the boats. And going with my father was always special,” says Rae who lost his dad this past January.

After Rae finished high school, he joined the merchant marines. For six years he worked on offshore cargo boats and made his way up from deck hand to chief mate.

But it was tough being away from home so much, as he had a young family. In 1987, his dad asked him to join the family business as a compass adjuster (one of his sisters, his oldest brother and his wife work for the company too).

Rae, now 47, takes calls from everyone from small pleasure boat owners to captains of offshore oil rigs. Most boats on the water are mandated to have a compass — even if they have a host of other fancy gizmos. “The magnetic compass is the only thing that works when the power goes out,” Rae says.

But they can lose their sense of magnetic north over time, thanks to new equipment on the boat, renovations, or just harsh weather. To get a compass back on track, usually on an annual basis, Rae takes the boat out on the water. He either drives (his 22-year-old son sometimes comes along to help) or the crew on a larger boat steers.

He then stops the boats at the various headings on the compass. Rae uses the sun, familiar landmarks or a chart to line the boat up. He then trues up the compass by using magnets. Most compasses have slots built right in where small magnets can fit, or Rae affixes them to the side of the boat.

The whole process takes about an hour. Most observers of Rae at work are pretty surprised to see him turning a boat in circles on the water. “A lot of people get this look, like, ‘Here’s the man with his black magic,’” says Rae.

Thanks to his years on boats and his study of magnets, it’s neither mysterious nor magical to Rae. Just a job he learned at his father’s side.

 
 
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