Port and Starboard: Which Side Is Which?

Nautical language is not as simple as left and right, so what do port and starboard mean? Our guide explains what you need to know.

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Are you new to cruising or even an experienced cruiser, but don’t know those nautical terms you often hear about cruise ships? It’s time to find out more about the left and right sides of the ship or should we say port and starboard sides!

nautical language can be a bit complicated—but for good reason. Left and right can be ambiguous on a ship depending on where the observing giving directions is standing.

As a result, the terms port and starboard were created to have less ambiguity. This way, no matter where the steering gear operator or captain was standing, they would be able to follow directions safely at sea.

However, this can be confusing for people who aren’t regular seafarers. That’s why, in this article, we’ll review where port and starboard came from and tips on how to remember them. Read on to learn more.

The History of the Nautical Terms Port vs. Starboard

Before we go into tips on how to remember these terms, we’ll review the history of port and starboard. This is also a way you can remember the terms if you happen to be a history buff type of person who remembers facts best in a historical context.

Before ships were powered by rudders, people would steer them by utilizing a steering oar.

Because many people are right-handed instead of left-handed, the people steering with these oars would sit on the ship’s right side.

The term ‘starboard’ comes from two words in the old English language: “stéor,” which means “steer,” and “bord,” which means a boat’s side. So, “stéor bord” became “starboard,” meaning, “the steering side of the boat.”

The steering oar belonged on the right, steering side of the boat, which we now call “starboard.”

Because of this, when ships were docked and moored, this would be done on the other or left, side. This other side was called, “larboard,” because it was the side on which the ship would be loaded.

However, over time, this term became confusing because it sounded too much like “starboard.”

So this term was changed to “port” because it was the side of the boat that would be used when the ship was coming into port. This other side of the boat was the right side.

Port (Red) and Starboard (Green)

With many ships sailing at night, it can be helpful to use lights so that they’re seen by other ships. This prevents issues such as navigating off course or ending up in a dangerous situation such as a shipwreck.

If you’re in a ship, and you see another one in the distance, you’ll be able to know if it’s coming toward you because of where the port (red) and starboard (green) lights are placed. If you need to navigate out of the way, you can.

This is useful not only at nighttime, but also if there’s fog, a storm, or some other type of inclement weather.

StarboardGgreen Light
Photo Credit: Richard Nantais / Shutterstock

This color-coding is also used on ships where airplanes and helicopters land (for example, army vessels). This ensures that they can land safely, especially in the dark or in inclement weather.

This said, however, when a ship needs to be hidden (for example, during wartime), these lights won’t actually be on. However, the ships will still use the colors red and green, painted, so that landings can be safe.

How to Remember Port and Starboard

Now that we’ve reviewed the historical differences between the port side and starboard side, we’ll review the different ways you can remember these terms so that you know your way around the cruise ship. These go beyond simple left and right, though we’ll include that, too.

Left and Right

Using what you’ve learned about the history of the nautical terms port and starboard, you can apply it by thinking of each side as left and right. However, depending on which way you’re facing on the ship, this can get a little complicated—so let’s cover that.

On the ship, the port and starboard are fixed. So what you have to do is look toward the front, or bow, of the ship. When you’re doing this, the starboard is on your right side and the port is on your left side.

However, depending on which way you turn, you’ll be facing them differently. For example, if you turn to your left, then the port side will be directly ahead of you and the starboard side will be directly behind you.

If you turn all the way around, then the port side will be on your right and the starboard will be on your left.

So you if you ever get confused, try to remember where the port of the ship is. Then, you can figure out where each side is based on that.

Carnival Cruise Ship Port Side
Photo Copyright: Cruise Hive

The Number of Letters

Of course, even though you might be able to know the facts above, it can get confusing until you actually get the terminology down. That’s why it can help to use a memory trick, such as this one, to learn the terms until they’re memorized completely.

With this trick, you’ll remember that the port side is on the left side when looking at the bow of the ship because both words—“left” and “port”—each have four letters in them.

Once you’ve figured this out, it’s easy to remember that starboard is on the opposite, or right, side.

The Port Wine Tricks

There are also two port wine memory tricks. The first is to remember that port, a type of fortified red wine, is red in color. When you’re on a cruise ship, you’ll notice that the signs and navigational lights that lead toward the port side are colored red.

By associating the color of port wine with the port side of the ship, you can easily find your way toward this side of the ship. This is an especially useful trick if you’re on an area of the ship where you can’t see the ship’s bow.

Port Wine
Photo Credit: Capricorn Studio / Shutterstock

The other port wine trick is a fun mnemonic device. Pretend you’re a pirate at sea who loves to drink. Then pretend that you’d love to have a drink of port, and ask the question, “Do we have any port left?”

By associating the “left” in this sentence with “port,” you’ll be able to remember that the port side is on the left side and the starboard side is on the right when you’re facing the ship’s bow.

Count the Number of Rs

Another way you can remember which side is which is by counting the number of Rs in both terms. While “port” only has one R in it, “starboard” has two. Then, apply the logic that more Rs means being more right. It will be easy to remember that the starboard is on the right side.

Remember, however, that for this method to work, you need to remember to face the front of the boat when doing it.

Use the Alphabet

If you’re someone who alphabetizes all the books on their bookshelf or uses the alphabet to organize another area of your life, then this can be a useful trick. It can also be great for parents since the alphabet is one of the first things kids learn.

You might notice, when looking at the terms port and starboard, that port comes before starboard alphabetically.

When it comes to the directions left and right, this is also the case. Left comes before right alphabetically. And guess what? You can match up the terms this way to remember.

This way, you can remember that the port is on the left side and the starboard is on the right side when you’re facing the front of the ship.

Cruise ship bridge
Photo Credit: VladyslaV Travel photo / Shutterstock

Get Fun Socks

This isn’t exactly a memory trick…but if you really have trouble remembering which side is which, this can be a great way to remember which side is which. All you have to do is buy some novelty socks that say “port” and “starboard” on each.

Of course, you’ll still need to put the correct one on each foot. Otherwise, you’ll get totally lost!

Jot down a note of which side is which on your dresser where you’re keeping the socks so that you put the “port” sock on your left foot and the “starboard” sock on your right foot.

Then, once you’re out and about on the cruise ship, all you need to do is look down at your feet to know which side is which. However, keep in mind that this only works if you’re directly facing the front of the ship.

Another way is using red and green cufflinks that can be used while onboard or even a simple fun port and starboard t-shirt.

FAQs

Now that we’ve reviewed the history of the terms port and starboard as well as the different tricks you can use to remember which side is which, we’ll go over some of the most frequently asked questions people ask about this topic.

What Are the Other Important Terms I Need to Know?

Other important terms you should know are “bow,” “fore,” “stern,” and “aft.” The “bow,” which is also referred to as the “fore” of the ship, is the front side of the ship—the direction in which the ship is going. The “stern,” also called the “aft,” is on the other side.

The “stern” or “aft” are used to refer to the rear side of the ship. All of these places stay the same no matter where you are on the boat, just like “starboard” and “port” never change.

However, depending on which direction you’re facing, you’ll see these areas from different angles.

Where Does the Term “Larboard” Come From?

“Larboard” also comes from old English. It’s a corruption that comes from middle English “ladeboard,” the combination of the two words “lade” and “board.” “Lade” meant to put cargo on a ship, while “board” was close to “on board,” as we use it today.

When Did the Terms Port and Starboard Become Popular?

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the English began to sail their trading ships more often, these terms started to become popular. It was a way for navigators to give each other instructions while sailing the great seas.

As England colonized countries such as the current United States and India, sailors in the countries all over the globe that the English colonized began to use these terms, too. As a result, it became a global way of referring to sides of the ship.

Since this time, maritime terms have become regularized and made uniform by international bodies. Because port and starboard were already being used by so many, they became the official terms used worldwide.

Need More Information?

Now that you’ve learned about the history of the port and starboard and fun ways to remember these terms, you might need more information. Maybe you want to learn more about how to know your way around a multi-level cruise or a specific cruise you’ve just booked. You can find out more by browsing our expert cruise tips.

Port and Starboard
Haiyan Ma

I absolutely love cruising with my favorite ports of call being in the Caribbean. As a former crew member for Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival Cruise Line I can continue my passion by sharing my experiences with readers.

Find out more about us here.

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