Go to content

Questions about boating

Where do the terms "port" and "starboard" come from?

The answer to this question takes us back to the early days of seafaring. Before ships had rudders on their centerlines, steering was controlled by a large oar at the stern of the ship. Since most people are right-handed, the steering oar was placed on the right. The term “starboard” comes from the Old English word steorbord, meaning the side on which the ship is steered.

So when docking, all vessels are tied up to port on their left, or “port” side. But this side of the ship was not always known as “port.” Originally sailors used the Old English term bæcboard (similar to bâbord in French), which means the “back side.” This is probably because pilots would turn their backs to the left side when steering the ship.

But wouldn’t it be easier just to say left and right? Not really, because these terms depend on the direction a person is facing. When you’re face to face with someone your left isn’t on the same side as theirs, so the terms “port” and “starboard” were introduced to give a common reference point for the whole crew.

Why is the captain's chair on the starboard side of the boat?

There are two schools of thought on this, and there are a number of factors - some historic, some scientific - that could explain why boats are usually steered from the right. But contrary to what many avid anglers may think, it isn’t to keep your right hand free so you can strike a big fish faster.

British invasion

The first explanation is rather obvious. In England, a car’s steering wheel is on the right, and, as history tells us, the British laid the foundation of commercial seafaring. Some say they set this standard based on their own transportation system.


A weighty problem!

The second theory is a lot more scientific. It has to do with the “distribution of weight” in a boat. In older boats, the force of the propellers probably caused the starboard side to lift up. A weight was needed to offset this, and the best solution people came up with was to put the helm on the right.

Need help keeping them straight?

These memory joggers can help:


both have four letters

Or use this rhyme:

Star light, star bright, STARBOARD is on the right.

Have more questions?

Ask away! We’re always happy to share our Princecraft® expertise with you.

Visit our FAQ section for more details.