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Port and Starboard on a ship – what it means

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Most of you might have heard the term Port side and Starboard side in relation to a ship..

These are actually nautical terms which refer to the left and right side of the ship respectively when you are looking towards the Bow (the front of the ship – also known as Fore)..

The rear of the ship is termed as Stern (also known as Aft)..

There are many answers as to the evolution of the names Port & Starboard as below..

Before ships had rudders on their centrelines, they were steered by use of a specialized steering oar.. This oar was held by an oarsman located in the stern (back) of the ship..

However, like most of society, there were many more right-handed sailors than left-handed sailors..

This meant that the steering oar (which had been broadened to provide better control) used to be affixed to the right side of the ship..

The term Port was derived from the practice of sailors mooring ships on the left side at ports in order to prevent the steering oar from being crushed..

From the Longboat museum in Oslo it is learned that a Viking longboat was steered by a large wooden plank called a “steer board”.. The modern day equivalent is a “tiller” or “rudder”..

The steer-board was operated by the helmsman facing forward and, since most people are right-handed, he would naturally hold the steer-board in his right hand..

Since the steer-board was always on the right, the right-hand side of the vessel became known as the steer-board side..

Subsequently, the term “steer-board” blended into the English language and evolved into “starboard“..

Another version is that, in the olden days before the advent of maps, navigation was done by following the arrangement of stars in the sky..

Usually, old sailing ships had long masts & sails which disturbed the visibility of the helmsman and the sailors arranged a deck extending out on the right side to watch the stars & continue sailing..

So one person on the ship used to read the location of the starts sitting on the deck & convey the same to the Helmsman..

The deck that was used to look at the stars and decide the sailing route was termed as starboard deck.. Because of this extended deck on the right side, only the other side of the ship could be brought towards the port and it was named as port-side..

Once the modern center post rudder was developed, it was no longer necessary to dock with the vessel’s port-side to port.. Ships now dock starboard or port-side alongside..

The Port side has Red navigation lights, the Starboard side has Green navigation lights..

Ships also have white lights on the masthead and stern (aft, rear) which when combined with the red and green lights, makes it easier to identify the direction of the ship at night..

These navigational lights are an important aid when the ship needs to follow COLREGS..

These lights are used to identify the direction and position of the ship at night and this is also used when there is a situation of Head-on, Crossing or Overtaking..

For example, if there are two vessels approaching each other head-on, each should alter course to starboard, so that they pass each other port-to-port unless otherwise communicated much like the rules of the road..



COLREGS or Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea was adopted on the 20th of October 1972 and came into force on the 15th of July 1977..

The 1972 Convention was designed to update and replace the Collision Regulations of 1960 which were adopted at the same time as the 1960 SOLAS Convention..

One of the most important innovations in the 1972 COLREGs was the recognition given to traffic separation schemes – Rule 10 gives guidance in determining safe speed, the risk of collision and the conduct of vessels operating in or near traffic separation schemes..

The COLREGs include 41 rules divided into six sections:

  1. Part A – General;
  2. Part B – Steering and Sailing;
  3. Part C – Lights and Shapes;
  4. Part D – Sound and Light signals;
  5. Part E – Exemptions; and
  6. Part F – Verification of compliance with the provisions of the Convention

COLREGS also has four Annexes containing

  1. technical requirements concerning lights and shapes and their positioning;
  2. sound signalling appliances;
  3. additional signals for fishing vessels when operating in close proximity, and
  4. international distress signals..

If you are interested, you can read more about COLREGS here..

port and starboard lights

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Hariesh Manaadiar
Hariesh Manaadiar
I am Hariesh Manaadiar, the Founder of Shipping and Freight Resource.. I have been in the dynamic shipping and freight industry for over three decades and have worked in several sectors.. I share my experiences and knowledge of the industry through this blog for those looking for help in the industry.. Stay subscribed for more free useful content about shipping, freight, maritime, logistics, supply chain and trade..


  1. It is a golden piece of information in our maritime education for our trainees who are trained to become seafarers and fishers

  2. When I was a passenger aboard a small container-feeder, I put stickies on the interior walls of my cabin. “P” for “Port” and “S” for “Starboard.”

  3. When I think of sailing especially in olden days, I think of the British. So I am wondering why on the sea they conform to the Right side of the “Road”, but not on land?


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