Knowing the difference between port and starboard is one of the first things we teach you when you come for sailing lessons with us. Port refers to the left side of the boat, while starboard is the right hand side. It important that you can remember which side is which, as port and starboard terminology will be used in emergency situations, or when you communicate with other crew members and boats
There are a few different tips and tricks that will help you to remember port and starboard. One of the easiest methods is to remember that port and left both have four letters in the word, while starboard and right have different letters.
Another consideration is how navigational lights on boats use green on one side and red on the other. But which is which?
Think of the phrase ‘there is no RED PORT LEFT in the bottle’, which helps to associate the colour red, as in the port drink, and left with the corresponding side of the ship. Another memory trick is if you know the traditional custom of passing port wine around the dinner table, you should be aware that it is customary to pass it to the person on your left.
That one small phrase of associating red-coloured port drink with the left will help you to remember that port is left, and it will be using a red navigation light, whereas starboard is green.
Why is starboard right and port left?
But why don’t we just call one side of the boat the left side and the other the right side. Left and right. Why the need for port and starboard? If it were just left and right, then lots of sticky situations would arise.
For example, when the skipper, looking forward to a crew member asks them to make the lines ready to come alongside on the left hand side: Is the skipper talking about his left or the crew member’s left, who is looking back to the skipper; Or the skipper faces person steering and says steer over to the right: Does he mean his right or the helmsman’s right?
So left and right doesn’t cut it and we’ve ended up with port and starboard.
The nautical terms for left and right have been used for centuries. The origins of port and starboard can be traced back to the early days of sailing when a steering oar was attached to the right side of the vessel. This meant that the boat could only be docked on the left side, which was known as the port side – as it was where the physical port was.
As steering oars were replaced by rudders at the stern (or back) of the boat, meaning boats could be docked on either side, the term ‘port’ stuck and became the standard term for the left side of the boat.
The use of staboard for the right hand side is believed to have originated from the Old English word ‘steorbord’, which means the side of the boat where the steering oar was located.
Other ways to remember port and starboard
Many people new to sailing will use a mnemonic to help them remember the differences between port and starboard. These are memory aids that help people remember information.
Here are some two easy to remember examples.
- ‘StaRboaRd is RIGHT’ – it has 2 letter Rs in it.
- ‘The ship’s LEFT PORT’ – as in, you’ve left on your journey.
With a little bit of practice, you will quickly and easily start to remember which side is which then, as port and starboard becomes second nature.
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