Which side of a boat is port?

What Side of A Boat Is Port?

Anyone who's spent time on a boat will undoubtedly have heard the terms port and starboard side being used instead of left and right.

Port and starboard, in nautical terms, are generally used to refer to the left and right sides of a vessel, whilst onboard, and facing the bow (front) of the boat. But why are port and starboard used as nautical terms?

The words port and starboard come from the medieval Latin word Portus, meaning “a harbour,” and the Old English word steorbord, meaning “the side of a ship that is opposite to the direction of the ship’s motion.”

Why do ships use ‘port’ and ‘starboard’ and not ‘left’ or ‘right’?

Port and starboard never change as they are unambiguous references that are independent of a mariner's orientation which enables them to use these nautical terms instead of left or right, thus avoiding confusion and improving safety onboard.

Port and Starboard

So which side is which?

The port side is the left side of the ship when looking forward towards the bow of the boat and the starboard side is the right side of the ship when also facing the bow.

Boat port and starboard
The main theme behind our conversation today has been around unravelling some of the mystique behind trips out into the maritime and coastal environment and the more tools that people are able to pick up and use to help them understand that environment the better. Tools like the savvy navvy app, and the information provided through the application is unbelievably useful to help people on that journey.

Guy Addington, RNLI

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How to remember port and starboard

There are many ways to remember which side of a boat is port and which side is starboard.

  • Think of how you might end a letter with P.S. - P for Port is on the left and S for starboard is on the right
  • Another way to remember is to think of the word "port" as meaning "left" as they both have 4 letters. and the word "starboard" as meaning "right."
  • A great easy saying to remember is - "A sailor named RED, LEFT from the PORT".
  • For the drinkers among us, you could think about a nice bottle of port with remembering this saying, "there is some red port left in the bottle" - Red Port Left.
Port Left Red - Starboard Right Green

How to remember the light colours for port and starboard

When travelling at night port and starboard can be identified by green or red lights. So it's important to remember which one is which! The easiest way to do this is if you think of Port being red like the colour of port wine and therefore starboard must be green. Easy!

Importance of standard terms on boats

There are many terms other than Port and Starboard that are standardised onboard, this is for a combination of reasons and not just for terminology sake, but for navigational purposes, directions and safety all aimed at avoiding confusion.

Here's a handy video that also explains the concept.

Using Port and Starboard instead of left and right means regardless of your orientation onboard, you should know which side of the boat is being referred to and also what right of way boats around you have.

A boat on starboard tack has right of way over a boat on port tack for example and when passing other vessels head on you must pass port side to port side.

We hope this article has given you a better understanding of not only the origins of the terms port and starboard but also why and how they are used!

For more information why not check out his America's Cup video that goes into it in more detail.

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