Why Do Boats Use Port And Starboard?

Anyone that is just getting into boating will notice that you hear a lot of people use the terms port and starboard. Instead of saying left and right. Which may come as confusing when you first hear them, and make you wonder:

Why Do Boats Use Port And Starboard? Port & Starboard Designate Left & Right on a boat. Depending on which way you are facing, left & right will change. Port & Starboard will always mean the same because they designate a side of the boat when you are looking forward on the boat.

This will explain exactly how these terms operate as well as how they came about. Plus a really easy way to remember which one is which!

Where Did These Terms Come From?

The terms port and starboard go back centuries, to at lest the 1500s. Before powerboats, and sailboats that had keels and rudders on the keel of the boat.

Large ships had an oar that was placed on the right hand side of the ship. This was used to steer the ship in whatever direction they wanted to go.

The actual word itself though comes from an old English word “steorbord.” This word means “the side on which the ship is steered.” Which we have come to know as the word starboard.

Supposedly it was placed on the right-hand side because there were more right-handed people.

Then as far as the port side is concerned because of the steering oar on the right. When the ships came into port, they would dock on the left side. Hence, we now call it the port side of the boat.

Using these terms for so many years, they have just stuck. They are also extremely useful and exact, which is why they have stuck for all of these years!

What Do They Mean When Looking At The Vessel?

As we said earlier, we can’t use just plain old left and right. If we are standing face to face, then my left will be your right and your right will be my left. This would make things super confusing, and even more confusing when it comes to navigation!

We will touch a little more on the navigational thing later when we talk about the colors of port and starboard. When looking at an airplane or a boat. The vessel is laid out to have a front, left, right, and back.

For each the airplane or the boat, the bow is the front, port left, starboard right, and aft for the back.

These terms never change. When talking about the orientation of the ship, no matter if you are looking backward or looking forwards. The port is the left, and the starboard is the right.

Which makes it way easier to discuss things and then when something happens at sea. We can discuss what is going on and know what we are talking about without a bunch of comical confusion!

Which is Which & How to Remember Port and Starboard

This means that it is extremely important to know which is which. So there needs to be an easy way to remember the difference between the two.

Most people have a little trouble with this, but only for a little while. They are actually pretty easy to remember, and even more so once you start using them regularly.

For me, the way that I have found to be the easiest, at least for me anyway. Is that I look at the letters that are in the words.

There are four letters in the word port, and also in the word left. I just remember that left is port because they both have four letters. Then that leaves you with right being starboard!

I have also heard some pretty good jokes about this too. There is also the famous joke about the sea captain that was super successful. He couldn’t remember the difference between port and starboard though.

I never found it to be that funny, so no need in telling it here today.

There is also the guy that said he just always remembered that he was port-handed!

Port and Starboard Colors

The same goes for remembering the colors when it comes to port and starboard.

Port is always red and starboard is always green. This can get tricky here so don’t try and remember too much on this one. Just remember that Red has less letters so it is for port. Left, port, and red all have the least amount of letters.

Right and Green both have five letters, but you don’t want to get things mixed up now remembering 3, 4, and 5 letters for all of these different terms!

When you think about it though, it’s pretty simple and easy to remember.

It won’t take long, and you will have it down!

The Importance of Port and Starboard in Navigation

Having these specific distinctions between the two is also super critical when it comes to navigation.

Knowing the colors and direction of port and starboard will let you know the direction that the vessel is positioned.

Think about navigating at night where all you have are the lights to go off of. When it is completely dark out and you see a green light moving along the horizon. With a white light behind it.

You know the direction that that boat is headed in or how it is facing. The same goes for the red light if all you see is the red light with a white light behind it. You know which direction the boat is headed in.

The port and starboard bow lights or navigational lights are always positioned on the front of the boat. Sometimes they are attached to the T-top, but always to the forward of the boat.

Then at the highest position of the boat, there is an anchor light. This is positioned at either the center of the boat or towards the back of the boat.

This way you can sort of tell what kind of boat it is, but definitely know what direction it is headed in. On sailboats they have a mast light at the top of the boat. So you will be able to tell the difference in a sail boat and a power boat.

Letting you know that the sail boat is going to be traveling at a lot slower of a speed than the power boat. Also that they are limited on their ability to make turns.

Standard Terms

These terms have become the industry standards in sea fairing vessels as well as the aviation industry.

You can probably tell why it is so important to have these two standards and why they make a big difference. As well as why it is important to know which is which!

Especially when it comes to boating safety! We would recommend that you read this article here that we wrote on How To Prevent Boat Accidents: Written By An Actual Boater! Just in case you are new to boating and want to get a head start in avoiding a lot of the embarrassing new boater mistakes!

Check Us Out!

We hope this helps you out in understanding the difference. As well as how to remember the difference between port and starboard!

We’d like to encourage you to check us out on our Youtube Channel: Born Again Boating! Where we create all kinds of helpful how-to and DIY boating videos. Along with super in-depth outboard service videos!

You can check out our Technician’s Tuesday Series where we take you along with us during a normal day as a Marine Technician. At a busy marina in the Florida Keys! See all of the action that happens on the job at a real marina!

Get subscribed to the channel and then add us to your favorites so we can become your go-to resource for all of your DIY boating project needs!


Aaron Hilligoss

Aaron has been working in the Marine Industry for over a decade and holds certifications for Yamaha and Mercury Marine. It is not uncommon for him to own and be working on at least three different boats at any given point in time!

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