Port and starboard

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Image from the Bayeux Tapestry showing a longship with a steering oar on the starboard side[1]
Diagram showing the schematic view of a ship's position lights.

Port and starboard are nautical and aeronautical terms for left and right, respectively. Port is the left-hand side of a vessel or aircraft, facing forward. Starboard is the right-hand side, facing forward. Since port and starboard never change, they are unambiguous references that are not relative to the observer.[2][3]

The term starboard derives from the Old English steorbord, meaning the side on which the ship is steered. Before ships had rudders on their centrelines, they were steered with a steering oar at the stern of the ship and, because more people are right-handed, on the right-hand side of it.[citation needed] The term is cognate with the Old Norse stýri (steer) and borð (side of a ship).[citation needed] Since the steering oar was on the right side of the boat, it would tie up at the wharf on the other side. Hence the left side was called port.[4]

Formerly, larboard was used instead of port. This is from Middle-English ladebord and the term lade is related to the modern load.[3] Larboard sounds similar to starboard and in 1844 the Royal Navy ordered that port be used instead.[5][non-primary source needed] The United States Navy followed suit in 1846.[6] Larboard continued to be used well into the 1850s by whalers.[citation needed] In Old English the word was bæcbord, of which cognates are used in other European languages, for example as the present Dutch bakboord, the German backbord and the French term bâbord (derived in turn from Middle Dutch).[citation needed]

The navigational treaty convention, the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea—for instance, as appears in the Merchant Shipping (Distress Signals and Prevention of Collisions) Regulations of 1996 (and comparable US documents from the US Coast Guard),[7]—sets forth the rights of way for maritime vessels, whether by sail or powered, and whether a vessel is overtaking, approaching head-on, or crossing.[7]:11-12 To set forth these navigational rules, the terms starboard and port are absolutely essential, and to aid in in situ decision-making, the two sides of each vessel are marked, dusk to dawn, by navigation lights, the vessel's starboard side by green and its port side by red.[7]:15 Aircraft are lit in the same way.


  1. ^ Grape, Wolfgang (1994). The Bayeux Tapestry: Monument to a Norman Triumph. Art and Design Series. Munich, DEU: Prestel. p. 95. ISBN 3791313657. Retrieved February 2, 2017. 
  2. ^ NOS Staff (December 8, 2014). "Why Do Ships use "Port" and "Starboard" Instead of "Left" and "Right?"". NOAA National Ocean Service (NOS) Ocean Facts. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Retrieved February 2, 2017 – via OceanService.NOAA.gov. 
  3. ^ a b RMG Staff (February 2, 2017). "Port and Starboard: Why do Sailors say 'Port' and 'Starboard', for "Left" and "Right?"". Discover: Explore by Theme. Greenwich, ENG: Royal Museums Greenwich. Retrieved February 2, 2017 – via RMG.co.uk. 
  4. ^ Administration, US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric. "Unlike left and right, port and starboard refer to fixed locations on a vessel". oceanservice.noaa.gov. Retrieved 2017-10-12. 
  5. ^ Norie, John William; Hobbs, J. S. (1847) [1840]. Sailing directions for the Bay of Biscay, including the coasts of France and Spain, from Ushant to Cape Finisterre ("A new ed., rev. and considerably improved" ed.). C. Wilson. p. 1. OCLC 41208722. Retrieved 7 February 2010. An order, recently issued by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, states, that in order to prevent mistakes, which frequently occur from the similarity of the words starboard and larboard, in future, the word port is to be substituted for larboard, in all Her Majesty's ships or vessels. 
  6. ^ George Bancroft (February 18, 1846). "Port and Starboard: General Order, 18 February 1846". General Orders. Washington, DC: US Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC). Retrieved February 2, 2017 – via History.Navy.mil. 
  7. ^ a b c MCA Staff (2004) [1996]. The Merchant Shipping (Distress Signals and Prevention of Collisions) Regulations 1996 (PDF). Southampton, ENG: Crown Department of Transport, Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). Retrieved 2 February 2017.