Port and Starboard

When standing on a vessel and looking in the direction of forward movement, the port side of the ship is to the left and the starboard side of the ship is to the right. The point of reference is not relevant to determine which side of the vessel or ship is the starboard or port. Hence, this reference reduces any confusion when instructions are passed down to sea-farers.

The port or starboard references can be referred to as nautical terms.

The roots of the word starboard are from old English words that mean “steering side of a ship”. This is because in the past, ships or boats were controlled using a central steering oar and since most people were right-handed, this oar was usually placed through the right side of the stern. Since the oar was on the right side of the vessel, it made it much easier to dock at ports with the left side facing the wharf and so the left side of the vessel became known as the port side.

The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea require vessels to mark the starboard side with green light and the port side with red light during hours of darkness in order to aid mariners when orientating themselves to the position and direction of movement of any vessels around them and hence and prevent accidents.

In this article we take a quick look at what these terms mean and at the end of this article, you will know what a mariner means when he/she says “port side of a boat” in a movie scene.

Here is a quick summary of other common directional references of a ship:

Bow: This is the front of the ship that faces the direction of movement when the ship is travelling. It is usually very obvious which is the front of the ship as it is designed to part water with a sharp angle.

Stern: The stern is at the back end of a vessel, which is an opposite reference to the bow.

Forward: This means towards the bow.

Aft: This means towards the stern.

There are many ways to remember port and starboard references:

  1. Port is a 4-letter word, so is “left”
  2. “Port” and “left” are shorter words than “starboard” and “right”
  3. Port wine is red, just like the colour of light port side is marked with
  4. Port is the side the boat docks on


Most people never have to know what these terms mean. However, if you are ever in a marine emergency, knowing what the seamen on the vessel are yelling about to each other would definitely be helpful. On a lighter note, it is also interesting to understand what pirates in movies are screaming to their savage crewmen when they are trying to escape a barrage of cannon fire!

diagram of vessel showing port, starboard, stern and bow of vessel

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