Port and Starboard on a ship – what it means

image for port and starboard

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..

Another bit of interesting information is that the Starboard side has Green navigation lights and port side has Red navigation lights and the Aft of the ship has a white light..

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.. Read COLREG for more..

Interesting isn’t it..??

port and starboard lights


*** End of Article ***

8 thoughts on “Port and Starboard on a ship – what it means”

  1. 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?


Share your views here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.