When you’re on a ship, you’ll often hear sailors refer to the “port” and “starboard” sides rather than “left” and “right.” But why is that? There are a few key reasons ships use these nautical terms:
The Meaning and Origin of Port and Starboard
- The word “port” comes from the Latin word “portus” meaning “harbor.” It refers to the left side of the ship, which would face the harbor when docking.
- “Starboard” derives from the Old English “steorbord” which meant the side of the ship that faced away from the dock, the right side.
- Before rudders, ships were steered with a steering oar on the right side at the back of the ship, reinforcing why “starboard” refers to the right side.
Why Ships Avoid Left/Right
- Unlike left and right, port and starboard are fixed locations on a ship and don’t change based on a sailor’s orientation.
- This avoids confusion – “left” could mean different things to crew members facing different directions.
- Port and starboard are unambiguous, independent of orientation, so they’re used for clear communication.
Remembering Port and Starboard
- An easy way is “port and left” have 4 letters, “starboard and right” have more.
- Or remember “port wine is red like the port side light.” Green is starboard.
- For port, think of unloading cargo at a port on the left side.
- Starboard was the steering side, most sailors were right handed.
Other Key Nautical Terms
Here are some other key nautical terms sailors use:
- Bow – front of the ship
- Stern – back of the ship
- Galley – kitchen area
- Head – bathroom
- Deck – floor
- Bridge – where navigation is controlled
- Bulkhead – wall
- Cabin – room, quarters
Using this specialized nautical vocabulary improves safety, communication and seamanship. So next time you’re aboard a ship, you’ll fit right in if you refer to the “port” side rather than the “left!”