Why starboard and port side and where boat's terms come from?
Today's nautical terms were borrowed from other languages. The English versions are at least a few hundred years old.
However, humans have been boating all of recorded history. Therefore, boating terminology has been slowly evolving over millennia. While it may seem strange to call the right side "starboard", for example, the origins of these terms answer our "why" questions perfectly.
One of the reasons that nautical terminology exists, ironically, is to avoid confusion. If a sailor was told to go "left", which direction would that be? facing the front, facing the back or facing one side?
However, the port side of the boat, for example, remained constant regardless of whichever direction any sailor would be facing.
Seemingly every part of a ship and every action that can be taken aboard a vessel has its own term. However, recreational boaters generally hear only a small percentage of the sailor's vocabulary. Some of the best-known nautical terms, the sides of every ship, are described below.
Why is the right side of a boat the starboard side?
One possible answer is that the right side is starboard because the steerboard would be on the right side of the ship.
Before the invention of the rudder, sailing ships were steered with a board. Most people were right-handed (and still are), so the steering board, or steerboard, was on the right side, their stronger side.
Another possible answer is that Vikings called the sides of their ships boards and their word for the steering oar sounded like star. They also steered from the right side, so the right side was the board with the star, or the star board.
In a similar manner to the Vikings, and during the same period, the Anglo-Saxons called the right side "steorbord". The translation of steorbord is "steering side", or the side on which steering takes place.
Why is the left side of a boat the port side?
The left side is port because boats with steerboards or star boards would dock at ports on the opposide side of the steerboard or star. Since the right side was the steerboard side or star board side, the left side was the port side. This was done so that the dock would not interfere with operating the steerboard or star.
Another reason why the left side is "port" is because it sounds very different from "starboard". The Vikings originally called the left side "larboard", but "larboard" and "starboard" sound too similar under conditions at sea when it is difficult to hear. The switch was made to a distinctive alternate name.
Going further back, the Old English name for the port side sounded like "backboard". On larger ships, the helmsman doing the steering would have his back facing the ship's left side. "Backboard" became "laddebord", meaning the loading side of the ship. "Laddebord" then became "larboard", causing the confusion that led to the switch to port.
Why is the front of a boat called the bow?
The term "bow" does not mean "front". The original term translates from other languages to "shoulder or "arm". Therefore, the "bows" are the hull's "shoulders". One possible explanation for this is human anatomy. The "head" is the frontmost part of a vessel, so the shoulders and arms would be immediately behind it.
Another possible explanation is related to the construction of wooden ships. Because a wooden frame curves near the front of a ship, wood from the boughs of trees would fit the frames better than wood from tree trunks. Although spelled differently, the terms "bough" and "bow" are pronounced the same.
One alternate explanation is that the term "bow" is derived from the "bow" with which the people of some cultures pay respect to other people. A ship pays respect to the sea itself by "bowing" to it as it traverses its surface. The up-and-down motion is similar to the act of "bowing". And the more the weather deteriorates, the more the ship bows out of respect to the sea.
Why is the rear of a boat called the stern?
The term "stern" evolved from two languages, and translates into "steering".
The steering oar on Norse vessels would be in the rear. As other nations adopted rearward steering, they likely adopted the term "stern", as well.
Because the rear of the boat is used for steering, and because the origin of "stern" means "steering", there are no alternate explanations for why the rear is called the "stern".
Ironically, ships today have both a stern, implying that the rear is the steering side, and a starboard, implying that the right side is the steering side.
What do the navigation light on boats mean?
The lights on boats work much like traffic lights. The starboard sides of boats have green light, while the port side of boats have red lights. When you are on a boat at night, these lights tell you in which direction another boat is travelling and, more importantly, who has right of way.
Therefore, if you see a green light on a boat ahead of you, it is a traffic signal that means "go". Your boat has the right of way, and the other vehicle needs to slow down to let you pass. If you see a red light ahead of you, however, that traffic signal means "stop". The other boat has right of way, so your boat has to slow down or stop.
As you can see in the picture, aircraft, as well as spacecraft have adopted the same red and green navigation lights' system.
TL;DR: Mnemonic tips to recall the boat's sides
Where is the bow? Memory Tip: Bow to the sea ahead.
Where is the stern? Memory Tip: If a boat has a rudder, you steer (stern) from the rear.
Where is the starboard? Memory Tip: To steerboard/starboard, you use your stronger right arm (right handed = 90% of the people).
Where is the port side? Memory Tip: Port and Left both have 4 letters.
Where is the green light on my boat? Memory Tip: The green light on your boat is on the right/starboard side because you give the right of way. Or: Green and Right both have 5 letters.
References, and Articles
Want to learn more about boat's term and jargon?
Below are few of the references we have used for this article.
- 1. Left Handed
- 2. Port Side
- 3. Starboard
- 4. Origin Port and Starboard
- 5. Bow
- 6. Front of the ship
- 7. Stern
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The Research and Media Team at Scotty's.