Fast Facts: Port vs. Left, Starboard vs. Right

The left side of a boat is called “port” due to maritime tradition and nautical conventions. An easy way to remember this is that there are four letters in both the word port and left; therefore, the port is on the left side of the boat. The term “port” has been used to refer to the left side of a ship for centuries. The origin of this convention is practical and historical.

In the past, ships had a steering oar, often located on the vessel’s right or starboard side. To avoid damaging this steering oar, the ship would be docked on the left side, which then became known as the “port” side. This practice allowed a clear passage on the starboard side for loading and unloading cargo.


Calling the right side of a boat “starboard” is also due to maritime tradition and history. The term “starboard” has its roots in Old English and Old Norse.

Let’s circle back to the oar that was typically located on the right side of the boat. That oar is also called a steering oar. The Old English term for this steering oar was “steorbord,” with “steer” referring to steering and “bord” to side. Over time, this term evolved into “starboard.”


The use of “port” and “starboard” provides standardized and unambiguous references for navigation and communication on ships, helping to avoid confusion between the left and right sides of the vessel. “Port” and “starboard” are used universally in the maritime industry to ensure clear and consistent communication among sailors and ship personnel.


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