This article was updated on 23 February 2023 with additional text (scroll down to the bottom)
The nautical terms “starboard” and “port” are often a source of confusion for landlubbers, including journalists and writers. They could be, too, for some seafarers. Here are some ways to always remember the difference between these two terms.
1) Imagine yourself at the helm of the ship.
As any sailor worth his salt knows, starboard is the right side of a vessel when one looks forward or towards the bow. Port is the opposite side. To avoid getting confused, imagine yourself navigating the vessel and looking to the water ahead. No matter the orientation of the vessel, starboard is always to your right if you are at the helm.
2) Think of a bright star.
It is easier to remember something by associating it with another thing. This principle also applies to words. You can associate the word “starboard” with “star”. A star is bright, which rhymes with “right”. In turn, “right” will call up in your mind the phrases “right side” and “right-hand side”. To illustrate the associative process:
starboard >> bright >> right >> right side
Further help from the distant past
Knowing the origin of the term ‘starboard” can also help. The word comes from the Old English steorbord, literally “steer-board, side on which a vessel was steered” (Etymonline.com). In ancient times, a boat was steered with an oar on the right side which was attached to a pivot point as shown in this picture:
Model Sporting Boat
c. 1981–1975 B.C., Middle Kingdom, Egypt
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Apparently, it was assumed by the boat-makers that most sailors were right-handed. Since the oar was situated on the right, it made sense to steer the boat’s left side towards the port for mooring.
Some folks reacted to this article on Facebook with some tips on how to remember that ‘port’ is the left side of a ship looking forward. Three of their suggestions:
Port is left on the ship but never in the glass!
A little red port left in the bottle.
Is there any red port left?