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Why Port and Starboard?

Why Port and Starboard?

1 month ago

In the nautical world the terms port and starboard are used instead of left and right to define which side of a boat or ship we’re talking about. If you are facing the bow (pointy end or front) of the boat, the port side is on the left and starboard on the right.

But why don’t sailors use left and right? Where did port and starboard come from?

Well, like other words and phrases in the English language (toe the line, swinging a cat, chock a block, above board, etc), the answer lies in nautical history.

Starboard (or Right)

Before boats had rudders they were steered with a steering oar which was operated from the stern (or back) of the boat on the right hand side, because most people, both then and now, are right handed. The word starboard comes from the old English word ‘steorboard’ which meant the side from which a vessel was steered. Eventually this led to the right hand side of the ship becoming the starboard side.

Port (or Left)

As the right hand side of the boat had all the steering gear it was generally safer and easier to dock the boat with the left hand side against the quay. So the left side of the boat became the loading side. The Middle English word ladeboard means ‘to load’ so the left hand side of the vessel was known as the larboard side. However, due to the confusion caused by starboard and larboard sounding so similar (especially with a strong wind blowing and the sea roaring around the ship), this was changed in 1844 by the Royal Navy and ordered to be known as the port side. Why the word Port was chosen seems to be from the Latin word ‘portus’ meaning port or harbour, and referring back to the side of a ship facing the harbour when it docks being the left side – because of the steering gear on the right.

Today the terms port and starboard are used on all boats from ocean liners to our Ribs . . .  and also on aircraft, but that’s another story . . .

I hope this has helped you ‘fathom’ the terms port and starboard, that we are now on an ‘even keel’ and you ‘know the ropes’ with everything ‘squared away’.

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