Explained: The origin of Port and Starboard

We've all heard of Port and Starboard, but which side of a boat are they and where did the name originate?

Ste Wright | 2 min read

Port and starboard describe the two sides to a boat or a ship. The port or 'port side' is on the left, with the starboard or 'starboard side' being the right. Nowadays, port and starboard are used around the world as to not confuse between the two sides of a boat or ship. This was standardised by the navigational treaty convention, the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.

Etymology of Starboard

A Nordic longboat with a steering board
A Nordic longboat with its steering board in a museum in Oslo

The origin of 'starboard' comes from when boats had a 'steering board' attached to the stern. Starboard is derived from the old English 'steorbord', which in itself had Norse origins. The earliest crafts were simple hollowed-out tree trunks or primitive canoes. As most people were right-handed, the steering board was found on the right side. This persisted into larger vessels sailed by the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse people.

What about 'Port' side?

With the steering board being on the right side, it was impractical to dock in port from that side, so the left-hand side of the boat would be used to dock in port. The earliest recorded use of the word 'port' was from 1543 where it was cited by the Oxford English Dictionary.

It wasn't always called 'port' though. The term was used interchangeably with larboard, originating from Middle-English 'ladebord' from 'lade' to 'load'. Due to the similarities with the sound of starboard, the Royal Navy officially dropped its use in 1844 to only use 'port' instead.

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