What Is the Port Side and Why Is it Called That?

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Nautical terms can almost be considered a foreign language. Standardized language at sea is necessary for the safety and efficiency of the crew operating any ship, including a cruise ship. But as a passenger, you may be curious about what these terms mean. 

If you’ve ever been on a ship or even simply heard mariners talk about a ship, you’ve probably heard the term “port side.” This term is often used enough that it may have piqued your curiosity, and you may be wondering what exactly it’s referring to. Well, you’ve come to the right place to find out.

In this article, you’ll learn what exactly port side refers to and why it’s called that.

What Is the Port Side?

In simple terms, the port side is the left-hand side of the ship or vessel. The right-hand side is referred to as the starboard.

A port is where you meet to get on your cruise ship. Specifically, there is a pier at the port to allow you to embark on the ship. The port side is where ships dock at the port, hence the name. 

Historically, this is the side where the cargo would be brought on the ship. In the context of cruise ships, this is the side from which you access the ship to get on and off for your cruise.

Port side of the cruise ship
Photo Credit: NAPA / Shutterstock

What’s more is that the port side of a ship has a red light that is usually on, especially at night, to let other ships know that it’s coming and which way to go. The starboard side of a ship has a green light. 

While this explanation is simple enough, you may wonder, why aren’t the sides simply referred to as “left” and “right”? Let’s find out.

Why Is It Called Port Side?

The left side of the ship is called the port side to avoid confusion among the crew onboard, especially when it comes time to dock the ship. 

Historically, ships with starboard or steerboard would dock at ports with them on the opposite side to not interfere. With the way the ships were built, the ship’s right side was always the side with the steerboard. This meant that the left side was always the side on which the ship would dock at the port. 

However, the language sometimes gets confusing because the sailors would often call out the side based on their orientation, meaning saying “left” or “right” wasn’t always accurate. Most sailors were right-handed, but it would get confusing when the odd left-handed sailor would call out the opposite way.

Sailing Ship
Sailing Ship (Photo Credit: Henrik A. Jonsson / Shutterstock)

To standardize the language, sailors would call out “larboard” to refer to the ship’s left side, but you can see how that can easily be confused with “starboard,” especially during chaotic times at sea.

Read Also: Cruise Ship Horn – The History and Significance

The name for the vessel’s left side went through numerous variations in Old English until they decided to refer to this side as “port,” as it accurately describes that side’s use and is much easier to distinguish from “starboard.” That language continues to be used today.

Therefore, using the terms “port side” and “starboard” is a way of standardizing nautical language, avoiding confusion, and ensuring the safety of all onboard. 


While knowing the port side isn’t particularly necessary knowledge for you as a cruise passenger – it will be obvious on your cruise side you need to use it to get on and off the ship – it’s still an interesting thing to know.

Hopefully, this article hasn’t just explained the port side but has also provided you with a brief history lesson on nautical orientation. Next time you get on your cruise and hear “port side,” you’ll know exactly what the crew is referring to. To impress the crew even more, you may even want to look up other cruise ship terminology!

Emrys Thakkar
Emrys Thakkar
The founder of Cruise Hive which was established in 2008 as one of the earliest cruise blogs in the industry. Emrys has been reporting on the latest cruise industry news since the site first launched. Expert insights and tips featured on a number of publications including The Express, Business Insider, and more. Worked for Carnival Cruise Line for 8 years and is well and truly dedicated to cruising! Has also been on a number of cruises so can offer an insight into the industry that many will not be able to do. What's even more impressive is that Emrys has traveled the world by visiting more than 34 countries, lived in China for 8 years, and cruised the Caribbean, Baltic, Mediterranean, Asia, and Europe. Find out more about us here.


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