When it comes to heading off on a cruise, one of the most important things, yet one which we often overlook, is understanding port vs. starboard.
These terms aren’t just important for the captain and crew. They’re also useful to anyone onboard so they can pay attention to commands and signage, especially in case of emergency.
In this post, we’re going to focus on two of the most important terms and provide easy solutions for keeping them in your mind. Let’s dive deep into understanding port vs. starboard, and how to remember which side is which.
Port vs. Starboard: Overview
The difference between port vs. starboard is quite simple. Both are terms that define one side of the ship. If you are looking toward the front (bow) of the boat, the port is on the left. That leaves the starboard on the right.
Seems simple enough, right? Why are these terms necessary instead of just using right and left, like nearly everything else in existence? These terms give each side a clear definition regardless of perspective.
What Happens if Perspective Changes?
It might help to consider another situation that does not use defined terms and instead relies on left vs. right. Let’s discuss one of America’s favorite pastimes, baseball.
As you might already know, there are nine distinct positions in baseball for the team on the field. Most of these are straightforward. The first baseman is near first base, while the catcher is behind the plate catching the pitches. The list goes on.
But two positions aren’t 100% clear to people unfamiliar with baseball. These are the outfield positions of the left field and right field.
Even if someone knows that left and right fields are positions deep in the outfield and on either side, it isn’t clear which side is which. If you look from home base to the outfield, left is on the third-base side and right is on the first-base side. That is the correct terminology.
But now put yourself in the shoes of someone in the bleachers sitting behind the outfield, facing home plate. From their perspective, the left is on the other side of the field, near first base, while the right is on the third-base side.
If they were to assume this perspective defines who plays the left-field position, they would be incorrect, even though their intuition and understanding of right vs. left tell them otherwise.
This is one reason boats use the terms port vs. starboard to tell the difference between the boat sides. It doesn’t matter which way you are facing, the port is always on one side of the boat and starboard on the other.
As a reminder, port is to the left when you are on the boat facing the front (bow). Starboard is to the right.
Origination of Sailing Terms
Hopefully, you’re starting to see why these sailing terms are useful. It’s not just to make it difficult for beginners. It provides everyone with a clearly defined term for each side of the boat, regardless of perspective.
But even with that, where did the words port and starboard come from? To answer that, we can imbibe in a little history lesson.
Today, most ships use a rudder to control steering. It is placed in the boat’s centerline, toward the rear, and can easily allow for a change in direction from one side to the other.
That wasn’t always the case. Before rudders, one oar served as the steering oar. It would come off one side of the ship and help provide directional control. Some whitewater rafts still use a similar concept.
Because most people are right-handed, the steering oar is on the ship’s right side when looking forward.
The word starboard is a combination of two Old English words. First, the word “stéor” meant to steer. Second, the word ”bord” referred to a side of the boat.
Since the boat’s steering side was the right side, starboard referred to that same side. Sailors and captains have cemented starboard into maritime terminology.
Since the steering side was on the right of the ship when looking forward, ships usually pulled into the harbor with that side facing the open water. The other side of the boat, the one on the left, would be closer to the dock.
That side would be used for loading and unloading crew and cargo and was known as larboard, which meant the loading side.
But larboard and starboard are a bit too similar in names. Thus, larboard eventually changed to port. The ship’s side that faced the port when docked is called port. That makes a bit of sense now, right?
Even with this bit of understanding, it can still be challenging to remember which side is port and which is starboard. And that is where this next section can help out.
Port vs. Starboard: How To Remember Which Side Is Which
There are many ways to keep track of port vs. starboard and how to remember which side is which. For some lucky people, they can hear the definition one time and never forget it.
But most people do not have a perfect memory, especially if they don’t get a lot of time on the water. For those, we have come up with a few main ways to help keep track of port vs. starboard.
- Left has four letters;
- Right is for the one with the most r’s; and
- Is there any red port wine left?
Let’s discuss each of these in detail so you’ll never have trouble remembering which is which again.
Left Has Four Letters
If you take a close look at the features of the words port and starboard, you can quite rapidly identify which side is which.
First, you can see that the word port has four letters. Do you know what else has four letters? The word left.
The left side of the boat is the port side. Just remember that this is based on the idea that you are on the deck, looking forward toward the front (bow) of the boat.
Right for the Most R’s
You can also identify the number of r’s in each word. The term with the most r’s is the one on the right side.
While port only has one r, starboard has two. Since starboard has more r’s, it refers to the right side of the boat.
Two r’s, right side. Once again, keep in mind that this is when you are on the boat looking forward.
Those are two of the easiest ways to identify port vs. starboard, and how to remember which side is which. But they aren’t the only methods.
Red Port Wine Left?
You might have noticed that some boats look like they’re continually decorated for Christmas. They have red and green lights on either side of the ship, and every boat that travels at night is supposed to have these in the same placement and illuminated.
The purpose of these lights is to help others identify which direction the ship is traveling. When in open waters, it is crucial to spot other traffic and ensure that you stay clear of one another.
The red and green lights indicate one side from the other even when someone is so far away they can’t decipher where the rest of the ship is. The port side of any ship should have red-colored lights, while the starboard side should have green-colored lights.
There’s a simple tip you can use to remember this fact. Port wine is red. Therefore, the red side of the boat is the port side.
But what if you can’t see the lights? Port wine can still help with this simple phrase, “Port is always left at sea, but never left at dinner.”
Get it? In other words, the port is on the left side at sea, but port remaining after dinner is never right.
The bottom line is that you can remember that the port has four letters and is on the same side of the boat as the red lights, while the starboard has two r’s and is on the side with green lights.
Additional Tips: Bow vs. Stern
Time for a little bonus round. If you are working on understanding port and starboard, it’s probably helpful to understand other basic sailing terms used on any ship. And that’s bow vs. stern.
Once again, these terms refer to what we usually would call the front and back of the ship. But to ensure that it is always 100% clear which is which, the terms bow and stern are used instead.
While arguably not as important as the left/right distinction, this is another set of terms deeply rooted in maritime customs and likely isn’t going to change. So let’s ensure we’re clear on them so you can always know what the sailors or captain is referring to.
The bow of any ship is the frontmost section, the one that punches through the water first when traveling forward. Bows come in many different shapes and sizes, but the term is used on all ships and boats to refer to the front piece.
A simple way to remember that the bow is the front is by thinking that when you bow to someone, you bend to the front. Bow forward.
Turning the other direction, you’ll find the stern at the rearmost section of the ship. Once again, sterns can be vastly different when you compare different ships against one another, but the term stern refers to a section that is farthest back, the one that trails the rest of the boat when underway.
This one is a bit more challenging to come up with a mnemonic device for, but if you’re willing to remember the days when spanking was used, you could think of the term stern relating to a stern punishment on one’s behind, or rear. The stern punishment is on the rear. Stern rear.
Port vs. Starboard: Wrap Up
It might seem strange that maritime terminology uses such outdated and odd terms for different parts of the ship. But as we discussed, using these terms ensures that everyone is clear about the side of the boat mentioned and helps identify where the boat is traveling, even with pitch black outside.
Port vs. starboard, how to remember which side is which? Port has four letters, just like the word left, and is the left side of the boat when one is facing forward on the boat.
Starboard has two r’s, one more than port, and therefore relates to the right side of the boat when looking forward.
Red port wine is left is another trick to remember which side is which. Not only because the port is left, but also because the port side of the boat should have red lights on it. Green lights are on the starboard side.
And to wrap up our bonus round, the bow is the front of the ship, just like when you bow forward. The stern is the rear, just like a stern punishment is on the rear.
With these simple tricks, you can always remember which side of the boat is which. The port is on the left, starboard is on the right. The bow is in front, the stern is in the rear.
More about our TFVG Author
A seasoned traveller, Dad, and avid sports tourist, James foundered The Family Vacation Guide to share his expert vacation experiences- especially when it comes to being a travelling family man.
Featured in Travel articles such as Travel + Leisure, TripSavvy and SFGate, you know you're reading some of the best vacation tips online.