Port vs starboard?

The words port and starboard are nautical terms that describe the right and left sides of a water vessel. The right side of a boat is the “starboard,” while the left side is called the “port.”

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What is the difference between port and starboard?

There are several unambiguous references to ship areas and duties, whether it’s a wharf, rudder, or “paying the Devil.” But unless you’re accustomed to life on the sea, incorporating nautical terminology into your writing can be difficult. 

Two of the more confusing terms include port and starboard, which are sea-savvy terms that locate the right and left sides of a water vessel. We can use either term as a noun, verb, or adjective, but their meanings generally stay the same: 

  • The port side is the left side of a ship.
  • The starboard is the right side of a ship. 

Where are the port and starboard located?

Ships are generally symmetrical on either side of the centerline and consist of four main areas: the bow, stern, starboard, and port. The fore or bow of a ship is located in the front, while the stern is in the back. Likewise, the starboard is the right side of the vessel, while the port is on the left. 

Mariners use terms like port and starboard because they reference specific sections of a boat without risking miscommunication. As outlined by “Boats for Beginners,” a mariner’s orientation onboard is directed by the following terms: 

  • Starboard-bow: the upper-right side of the bow. 
  • Port-bow: the upper-left side of the bow. 
  • Starboard beam: the center-right side of the boat.
  • Port beam: the center-left side of the boat. 
  • Starboard-quarter: the rear-right section of a boat. 
  • Port-quarter: the rear-left section of a boat. 

While the entire right and left sides of a boat are called “starboard” or “port,” there are several other ways sailors define the orientation of the inner-ship. For instance, the center of the ship is ‘amidships,’ and it separates the bow from the stern. 

If you’re walking toward the sides of the port or starboard, you’re traveling outboard, but if you walk toward amidship, you’re moving inboard. These terms change when the ship docks, and whichever side is attached to the pier is “inboard,” while the other side is “outboard.” Makes sense, right? 

Where did the words port and starboard come from?

In the early days, mariners initially called the right side of the ship the ‘steering side’ or ‘steerboard.’ The strange names arose because most sailors were right-handed, and the majority of vessels had steering oars on the right side of the stern. 

Over time, the ‘steering side’ turned into stēorbord,’ which is a combination of Old English stéor (‘steering oar’) and bord (‘side of the boat’). Old English stēorbord also meant ‘the rudder side,’ as the Teutonic peoples steered their sailboats with a paddle on the right side of a boat. 

The word port is not an original term either, as sailors previously used “larboard” to describe the left side of the ship. Stemming from Old English bæcbord, the word larboard references the ‘loading side’ of the ship. And since the loading side was opposite of the oar, the term naturally describes the left side of the boat. 

Sailors soon realized how “larboard” was too similar to “starboard” and decided to use the word port, instead. Considering how the left side is port-facing, the transition to port makes sense. Even more serendipitous is how the word “port” already stems from Latin portus for ‘haven’ or ‘harbor.’ 

The convenient shift took place in Old English and stuck around through Middle English and Old French. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the United States and British Navy officially replaced “larboard” with “port.” As documented by the General Order of February 18, 1846, George Bancroft announced:

“… in consequence of the similarity of sound, the word ‘Port’ is hereafter to be substituted for ‘Larboard.’” 

What does starboard mean?

The word starboard is primarily a noun that describes the right-hand-side of a water vessel. For example, 

“The tiller twisted in my hand as my boat bucked and took a dive to starboard.” –– Duluth News Tribune

Starboard is an adjective when it describes something oriented in the direction of the starboard. Examples include ‘starboard-bow,’ ‘starboard-beam,’ or ‘starboard-quarter.’ 

Lastly, we can use starboard as a verb when it describes the act of turning a helm or rudder toward the right. Verb forms of starboard include starboard(s) and starboarding. 

For example,

“’The first officer immediately starboarded the helm, reversed the engines full speed and closed all watertight doors.’” –– The Daily Mail

What does port mean?

Within nautical terminology, the word port is a noun that describes the left-hand-side of a water vessel and where cargo is typically loaded and unloaded. For example, 

“… as you get closer, turn the wheel to port to allow the transom to swing in.” –– Boating Magazine

The noun port may also describe a town, city, or harbor, where ships can dock and safely anchor to land, or an area of water that’s deep enough to provide safety for ships during storms. For example, 

“The Port of Astoria is doubtful Astoria will see any cruise ships this year…” –– The Astorian 
“Today, U.S. coastal areas are undergoing significant changes… including port congestion and navigation hazards.” –– National Ocean Service

As with “starboard,” the word port is an adjective or verb when it describes the ‘port-bow,’ ‘port-quarter’ or ‘port-beam,’ or describes the act turning a helm to the left. Verb forms include ports, ported, and porting

Synonyms

Anchorage, basin, dock, harbor, harborage, haven, jetty, marina, mooring, pier, seaport.  

Phrases of port and starboard

“Listing to starboard

The phrase “listing to starboard” carries two contrasting definitions. In nautical terms, the word “list” refers to a lean that occurs when a boat is out of balance. If luck would have it, one could go their entire life without hearing “the boat is listing to starboard” (leaning to the right) or “listing to port” (leaning to left). 

There’s one other interpretation rooted in British slang: a “drunk” or “intoxicated” person. We think the metaphor speaks for itself, but here’s a quick example: 

“Before him stands a man named Smith, accused of being drunk — “Listing to starboard from too much port,” as a public defender in Baltimore’s Southern District once put it…” –– The Baltimore Sun 

“Any port in a storm”

Any port in a storm” is a proverb that describes how someone will accept any help or relief to escape an unfavorable situation. An additional interpretation of the phrase is ‘any solution is better than none.’ For example, 

“So, fine, the em dash is easy to turn to—any port will do in a storm.” –– Slate Magazine

Port of entry”

The “port of entry” is an entrance to a country (e.g., harbor or airport) where goods are unloaded from a vessel, or where travelers meet with customs officers. Sentence examples include, 

“Idaho, Montana ports of entry to continue on reduced hours.” –– Kootenai Valley Times
“[She] is a nurse consultant with the state Division of Public Health, but for the COVID-19 response, she’s the port of entry coordinator.” –– Alaska Public Media 

Port out, starboard home” 

During the 19th and 20th centuries, it was common to hear travelers say “port out, starboard home” in reference to voyages between England and India. As boats traveled toward India, passengers of port side cabins remained cool after the morning sun, while passengers of starboard cabins endured the afternoon heat into the night. The opposite situation occurred on the return trip home, so the English would say, “port out, starboard home.” 

Test Yourself!

You might be comfortable navigating the waters, but how do you feel about taking a test? See how well you understand port vs. starboard with the following multiple-choice test. 

  1. A ship is generally symmetrical along its ______________.
    a. Port
    b. Waterline
    c. Centrelines
    d. Starboard
  2. The port side is the _________ side of a ship. 
    a. Front
    b. Right
    c. Back
    d. Left
  3. The starboard side is the _________ side of a ship. 
    a. Front
    b. Right
    c. Back
    d. Left
  4. Which Old English words are related to Modern English “port”? 
    a. Bæcbord
    b. Steorbord
    c. Larboard
    d. A and C
  5. True or false: the starboard and port sides depend on the size of boats.
    a. True
    b. False

Answers

  1. C
  2. C
  3. A
  4. D
  5. B

Sources

  1. An Introduction to NOAA’s National Ocean Service.National Ocean Service, May 2020.
  2. Any port in a storm.” The American Heritage Idioms Dictionary, Dictionary.com, 2020. 
  3. Any port in a storm.” Macmillan Dictionary, Macmillan Education Limited, 2020. 
  4. Bree, Marlin. “Lake Superior’s wildest Fourth tosses tiny boat.” Duluth News Tribune, 4 July 2020. 
  5. Cortese, Garrett. “How to Dock a Single-Engine Inboard Boat.” Boating Magazine, 23 July 2020. 
  6. Doesn’t the Word “posh” come from “port out, starboard home”?The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  7. Harper, Douglas. “Larboard (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, 2020. 
  8. Hsieh, Jeremy. “Why Alaska’s COVID-19 airport screening lines might be skipped or unstaffed.” Alaska Public Media, 9 July 2020. 
  9. Malone, Noreen. “The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash.” Slate Magazine, 24 May 2011. 
  10. Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division. “Nautical Terms and Naval Expressions.” The Sextant, 7 June 2019. 
  11. Pike, John. “Boats for Beginners.” Federation of American Scientists, 7 June 2000. 
  12. Port.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  13. Port.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  14. Port and Starboard: General Order, 18 February 1846.” Naval History and Heritage Command, 12 Sept 2012. 
  15. Port of entry.” Cambridge Business English Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
  16. Rodricks, Dan. “Arnick affair blinds Senate to vital lesson.” The Baltimore Sun, 16 Feb 1993. 
  17. Starboard.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  18. Starboard.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  19. Stratton, Edward. “Port of Astoria doubtful about any cruise ships this year during pandemic.” The Astorian, 23 July 2020. 
  20. Zolfagharifard, Ellie. “Titanic theory put on ice.” The Daily Mail, 9 Apr 2014.