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On a Ship, what is Port?

By Bronwyn Harris
Updated May 23, 2024
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Port is the seafaring term for the left side of the boat or ship, from the point of view of a person aboard the ship, facing the front, or bow. This term is also used for spacecraft and airplanes. The port side of a ship does not change depending on which way a person is facing. The opposite is starboard.

The original English nautical term for the left side of a ship was larboard, which came from the Middle English term for "the loading side." As the word rhymes with "starboard," it was easily confused, especially during high winds or in loud environments, and this could cause significant problems when attempting to follow shouted commands. In the 1500s, the term was changed to "port," likely since that was the side of the ship where dockworkers normally load cargo from the port.

An alternate theory for the origin of the word is that the English word came either from the Latin word porta, which means "door" or "gate" or portus, meaning "harbor." This could have again referred to the side of the ship where the dockworkers loaded cargo or to the gate or door opened to load the cargo.

Whalers continued to use the term "larboard" up until the 1850s, long after English-speaking merchant mariners adopted the other term. Captain Robert FitzRoy of Charles Darwin's ship, the HMS Beagle, instructed his crew to substitute the term "larboard" with "port" in the late 1820s. This may have prompted England's Royal Navy to adopt the term in 1844.

Seagoing vessels and airplanes all have a red light on the port side, a green light on the starboard side, and a white light on the aft, or rear. This can help people remember which side of the ship is which with a few simply associations. The port side of a ship has a red light, and the wine with the same name is generally red. "Port" and "left" also both have four letters.

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Discussion Comments
By Cageybird — On Jan 29, 2015

I've always used that mnemonic about "port" and "left" having the same number of letters to keep it straight in my head. I don't ever associate port wine with the left side of a ship, though. Of course, I've never had to steer a naval vessel, either. Most of the time, I'll just use "left" and "right" when I'm steering our little pontoon boat on the lake.

By Inaventu — On Jan 28, 2015

As important as course corrections are on a ship, I can't believe sailors would have kept "larboard" and "starboard" as long as they did. You'd think they would have adopted something like "port" a lot sooner. I can just imagine some poor sailor at the helm of a boat trying to figure out if the captain said "larboard" or "starboard" in the middle of a storm.

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