Ever wonder why boaters use terms like port and starboard instead of left vs. right?  In this short article, I will explain where these terms originated, why they are important for marine navigation, and how to easily remember which is which.

Which is the Port side?

Port vs. Starboard Side of BoatThe left side of the boat while facing the bow is referred to as the “port” side whereas the right is referred to as the “starboard” side.  These terms have been used for hundreds of years to minimize confusion on board a vessel.  This is because they are unambiguous references that do not change regardless of the direction in which one is facing on board a vessel.

Where did the terms Port & Starboard originate?

Long ago, ships had rudders that were controlled by a steering oar.  And since most people are right handed, the steering oar was located on the right side of the vessel near the stern.  The term starboard is derived from “stéor” (meaning “steer”) and bord (meaning “side of boat”).

Because the right side had the steering oar, ships would dock or “port” on the left side to offload passengers and cargo.  Hence the term “port”.

International boating standards stipulate that a green light (in the bow) be used on the starboard side, whereas red is used to on the port side.  This helps to minimize collisions while boating at night or in low light conditions.  If you see a boat ahead and the red light is on the left, then you know it is traveling in the same direction.  On the other hand, if the light on the left is green you might need to take evasive actions to avoid a collision.

Why Does It Matter?

Stand-on vs. Give-way vessel

Knowing what is the port side of boat vs. the starboard side is important for marine navigational rules.  Specifically, if the paths of two vessels might intersect, the boat on the port side is the “give-way” vessel meaning it is responsible to reduce its speed or change direction to avoid a collision.  The vessel on the starboard side is the “stand-on” vessel and has the right to maintain its course.  In other words, the vessel on the right has the right-of-way.

How to Remember Port vs. Starboard

Decades ago, my Dad taught me a little mnemonic trick that boaters sometimes use.  “There is some RED PORT LEFT in the bottle”.  Even though I was not a wine drinker at that time, this phrase has stuck with me ever since.

So now you know and easy way to remember what side of a boat is port and why that matters for marine navigation.  And as an added bonus, you now know where these terms originated to impress (or annoy) your friends at your next cocktail party 😉.

Jerry Mona - BoaterInput

About the author

Jerry Mona is an avid boater and angler and long-time boating industry insider. With over three decades of experience, he is often considered to be the leading research expert with boaters and has helped numerous manufacturers and trade associations to understand the needs, wants, attitudes and behaviors of boaters. He now shares many of his insights about boats and boaters for free on his BoaterInput.com website.

Leave A Comment