When you first learn about boats, one of the trickier nautical terms to get your mind around is the use of the terms PORT and STARBOARD. Both are old terms that are still used today. But their use varies depending on the type of vessel and what is being discussed, be it a cruise ship or a row boat.
One thing is for sure, if you’re at the helm, wondering how to heave to, and the captain shouts, “Hard to port,” then you want to know which direction to turn. Here’s a look at the history of these terms and how they’re used, plus eight fun ways to help remember them.
What Do Port and Starboard Mean?
On boats, long-held traditions still cling on. And in boating, the ship’s sides have always been the reference for what direction to turn or where to dock.
Each side of the ship has a name. For example, when you are looking forward–that is, toward the bow of the boat–the side to your left is the port side. The side to your right is the starboard side.
On one level, using port and starboard reduces confusion. Left and right are subjective terms based on the people on the ship. Each person might be looking in a different direction. If someone is looking aft, then the left side for them is the right side for someone looking the other way. But port and starboard never change because they are based on the ship, not the person.
The words get used for all sorts of things in the nautical world. For example, if there are two items on a boat, like two fuel tanks mounted side by side, they will undoubtedly be marked as the port and starboard tanks. If a boat has two engines, they will be the port and starboard engines. If you name each dock line a boat uses–and yes, they all have names!–then you might hear the port bow line or the starboard aft spring line mentioned.
But it doesn’t end there! When coming into a port, you might call the marina for directions to your slip. And they might say, “You’ll be stern-to, port side tie.” In other words, you need to back into the slip, so your stern is toward the dock and tie off the boat on its port side.
When you read the COLREGs, port and starboard always pop up. The COLREGs are the international rules of the road that all boaters must abide by. One of the key rules is that when two vessels are meeting head-on, each shall adjust their heading to starboard. Another rule states that when two vessels converge, the one to starboard has the right of way.
History of Port and Starboard
The history of the terms port and starboard is pretty interesting. These terms date back hundreds of years to a time when ships looked different than they do today.
The word starboard comes from vessels that used side-mounted steering oars. The oar was typically mounted on the right-hand side of the boat (when looking forward) because that was the most convenient for a right-handed helmsperson.
The port side is named because boats with such a side-mounted oar would always tie to a pier or a dock with the side of the boat that did not have the steering oar. So, port comes from the idea of that side being the side tied up when in port.
Here’s a great video from “Today I Found Out” that describes the history of the terms, a great port side of ship diagram, and how sailors used the words throughout history.
Another interesting tidbit about these terms comes from the slightly confusing way a captain would tell the helmsman to steer one way or another. If you think about steering with a tiller, the helmsman must push or pull the tiller in the opposite direction from which they want to go. Doing so moves the rudder opposite to that. So to turn left, the helmsperson moves the tiller handle to the right and vice versa.
Back in the day, captains gave their commands based on the direction that the tiller or the bottom of the ship’s wheel should be turned. That tradition has gone away now, and when the captain wants to move the boat, they simply command which direction the bow should be turned.
Interestingly, many of the deck commands you hear on small racing boats are still the same. For example, when a sailor shouts “hard a-lee” before a tack, they move the tiller downwind (to leeward, or a-lee) so that the bow will go windward. Tacking and the basic points of sail often use the terms windward and leeward instead of port and starboard.
8 Ways to Memorize Port and Starboard
Now that you’re thoroughly confused, clear your mind with these easy ways to remember port and starboard. We’ll start with one easy trick that will help you with the others–you only need to memorize one to get started. Since there are only two options, if you know one, you can figure out the other!
Number of Letters
A foolproof way to remember is to count the letters. The words LEFT and PORT both have four letters. Starboard and right don’t match at all. That’s it–the two words with the same number of letters go together. Port is the left-hand side, and therefore starboard is right.
Count the Letter “R”
Whichever word has the most letter Rs is the “right” one. PORT only has one, but STARBOARD has two Rs. Therefore, STARBOARD is the RIGHT side of the ship.
Have Some Red Wine!
If you like wine, here’s a little ditty to help you remember. “There is no RED PORT wine LEFT in the bottle!” RED PORT LEFT is really all you need to know.
What is this about RED PORT wine? Well, sailors have associated colors with direction for a long time. It’s one more visual clue to help them remember.
The colors actually refer to the navigational lights that ships must show when running after dark. The lights are different colors and must always be mounted in fixed locations on every ship. That way, if you are spotted by another vessel in the dark, they can tell which direction you are going based on the color of the lights they see.
The red light is mounted on the ship’s port side, so the color red is associated with that side. The starboard side has a green light. So, what color is a boat’s sternlight or Boat’s Sternlight? White!
Conveniently, this makes sense with the COLREGs and the rules of the road. If you are driving your boat at night and you see a red light, you should stop–or at least give way. The other vessel has the right of way, and from their perspective, you are showing a green light. And green means go!
Stickers or Flags on Your Boat
With this in mind, many skippers like to add little color indicators to their boats to help them remember. Some people like to use red and green colored lines on their jib sails. Others like to tie ribbons from their rigging where they can see it from the helm for a boat.
You can purchase sticker kits for your boat, including labels for all the important controls, lines, and directions. Notice that these sticker sets include large red PORT and green STARBOARD labels that you can mount near the helm.
Port and Starboard Socks
Socks aren’t required boating equipment unless it’s very cold out. But if you have a party and need a conversation starter, these port and starboard socks are just the ticket. Just be sure to remember to put them on the correct foot! Alternatively, you could get yourself one red and one green sock to make a real statement!
Decorate Your House or Apartment with Port and Starboard Sides
You can carry it over into your home or apartment if you get into the colors.
The colored ship’s side lights are a great nautical decor touch. You can find old-school oil lamps, or you could use colored bulbs.
Memorize a Personal Item
Do you wear a wristwatch, or maybe a wedding ring? You always keep them to port if they’re on your left arm. It’s a silly little trick, but if you just remember that your watch is on the port side, you can figure out that port means the left side. If you don’t wear a watch or a ring, how about getting a sailor tattoo?
Never Leave Port Confused Again!
Well, at least less confused when it comes to LEFT, RIGHT, PORT, and STARBOARD. So use your favorite of these eight tricks until you’ve got these terms down. And then, you might find it will still come in handy one day when you’re teaching someone else to sail–or you just have one of those “brain cloud” forgot-what-I-was-saying moments!
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
How do you memorize port and starboard?
There are quite a few clever ways to memorize which is port and which is starboard. A good trick is to think about port wine and remember the phrase, “There is no RED PORT wine LEFT in the bottle!”
How do I remember which side is port?
There are several good ways to remember port from starboard. One easy one is to count the letters in each word: PORT, LEFT, STARBOARD, and RIGHT. The words that have the same amount of letters go together. So, PORT goes with LEFT.
Why is port left and starboard right?
Both terms have been used for hundreds of years. Starboard refers to the side of a ship where the steering oar was mounted. These types of vessels are uncommon, but the term has stuck around. The port side of the ship was always the side of the ship that was tied to a pier or dock. Originally it was called larboard, but this rhyming word sounded too close to starboard and caused confusion. Finally, in the mid-1800s, both the Royal and US Navies made the official change to port.
Why is port red and starboard green?
The colors associated with port and starboard indicate the color lights displayed on vessels at night. By law, a boat must show a red light on its port side and a green one on the starboard.
How do I memorize Portside?
There are a few ways to keep port and starboard straight in your mind. One trick is to count the number of times the letter R is used, and whichever has the most Rs is the RIGHT one. PORT has one R, and STARBOARD has two. Therefore, STARBOARD is RIGHT, and PORT is LEFT.