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On a Ship, What Is Starboard?

By Bronwyn Harris
Updated May 23, 2024
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On ships, the directions "right" and "left" are not commonly used, and mariners use nautical terms instead. Starboard is the right-hand side of the ship as seen from someone aboard the ship, facing the bow, or front. Port is the opposite side, or the left side of the ship. One benefit of using these nautical terms is that they do not change depending on which direction a person is facing.

The etymology of the word "starboard" is fairly straightforward. It comes from a combination of two Old English words: stéor, meaning "steer" and bord, meaning "the side of a boat or a ship." The rudder, used to steer a ship, was originally on the right-hand side, and the term stéorbord, "the steering side of a ship," evolved into the term used today.

starboard

The opposite side was larboard, or "the loading side." This was too easily confused with its rhyming opposite, so was later changed to port. The term may have come from the fact that cargo was routinely loaded from the port onto the left-hand side, or from the Latin words for harbor or door. "Port" was officially accepted over "larboard" by Britain's Royal Navy in the 1840s.

The starboard side of most ships is usually the "senior" side, with the flag of the captain being raised on this side. On the quarterdeck, this side is generally reserved for the captain, and if the ship carries its own gangway, the officers' gangway is stored on the right as well.

starboard

On seagoing vessels, as well as aircraft, the starboard side is designated with a green light, while the port side has a red light. A white light is mounted on the aft or rear side of the ship. This is true of ships around the world.

Many landlubbers have trouble remembering which side of a ship is starboard and which is port. One mnemonic device is to remember that port wine is generally red, so the port side has a red light. Another is to be aware that "left" comes before "right" in the alphabet, and "port" comes before "starboard." "Left" also has four letters, so it must match with the other four-letter word, "port." Of course, all these clues only work when a person is facing the front of a ship.

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Discussion Comments
By anon271129 — On May 25, 2012

The easy way to remember is this phrase: "The ship left port" left is port, easy. If it's not port it's starboard.

By anon167533 — On Apr 13, 2011

Port and Starboard are only used to indicate left and right when standing on a ship facing the bow. If you are in the water facing the bow, your own left will be on same side as the ship's starboard and your right will be on the same side as the ship's port side.

If you are in the water facing the aft, use same references as if you were on the deck of the ship facing the bow. If you are in the water facing the port side of the ship the bow will be on your left, and the aft will be on your right. Never try to sound sailor savvy by referencing your personal left and right as port and starboard.

Those terms are for reference of the ship only. Your references to positions around your body are still left/right/front/behind.

By anon130506 — On Nov 28, 2010

Very helpful to a nautical noob like me!

By anon91145 — On Jun 20, 2010

here i read some comments and i understand the port is left and starboard is right but i want to know if i'm on a ship how i can know which is left and right? And one important thing: what is the importance of port and starboard side.

By Newcomer — On Jun 16, 2010

Still made me confused about the words port and starboard terminology for a ship. If I'm facing the ship, they call it on my right hand is starboard side and my left hand side is the port side.

How about if I'm on board the ship and facing the forward, then my left hand side is port. My right hand side is starboard. Is that correct?

By anon36145 — On Jul 10, 2009

I too have been on many ships during my life time and know that when you are to go to the left or right of the ship you were told either starboard or port. There was never any confusion.

By anon3340 — On Aug 24, 2007

Unclear desription of where the person is standing. If they are on the ship and facing the bow left and right are different than if they are in front of the ship (say,on the dock) facing the bow.

By anon2046 — On Jun 25, 2007

I was in the Navy for 6 years, and just wanted to re-assure myself that I was right about my recollection of Port and Starboard Colors before putting it in writing.

The article messed me up because it was always my experience that left and right are reference from a person on the ship facing towards the bow, thereby making port on the left and starboard on the right. I would think that people who were using this and were on ships or boats would be better served if you changed your reference from in the water looking at the bow of a ship. Even if someone fell in the water, unless the ship was going backward, your reference system still wouldn't be of any value because the ship would pass them by and they'd still be looking at the aft end of the ship, and port would be on the left and starboard would be on the right. Please get it right, so that you don't cause some old sailors to think that senility has set upon them before it actually does. Thanks, FC2(SW)

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