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Nautical Potpourri: Port & Starboard

Port and starboard are nautical terms which refer to the left and right sides (respectively) of a ship as perceived by a person on board facing the bow (front). At night, the port side of a vessel is indicated with a red navigation light and the starboard side with a green one.

The origin of the term starboard comes from early boating practices. Before ships had rudders on their centerlines, 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 word starboard comes from Old English steorbord, literally meaning the side on which the ship is steered, descendant from the Old Norse words stýri meaning “rudder” (from the verb stýra, literally “being at the helm”, “having a hand in”) and borð meaning etymologically “board”, then the “side of a ship”.

An archaic version of “port” is larboard, which itself derives from Middle-English ladebord via corruption in the 16th century by association with starboard. The term larboard, when shouted in the wind, was presumably too easy to confuse with starboard and so the word port came to replace it. Port is derived from the practice of sailors mooring ships on the left side at ports in order to prevent the steering oar from being crushed.

Larboard continued to be used well into the 1850s by whalers, despite being long superseded by “port” in the merchant vessel service at the time. “Port” was not officially adopted by the Royal Navy until 1844 (Ray Parkin, H. M. Bark Endeavour). Robert FitzRoy, Captain of Darwin’s HMS Beagle, is said to have taught his crew to use the term port instead of larboard, thus propelling the use of the word into the Naval Services vocabulary.

Remember and Learn: Port & Starboard
There are a number of tricks used to remember which side port and starboard each refer to:

  • The simplest being “no, port left”
  • “Star light, star bright, starboard is to the right.”
  • A ship that is out on the ocean has “left port”.
  • The English words “port” and “left” both have four letters in them. Port is left when facing forward, so naturally starboard is right.
  • Terms referring to the right side are longer words (“starboard”, “right”, and “green”), while terms referring to the other side are shorter words (“port”, “left”, and “red”).

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