how do you remember port and starboard
how do you remember port and starboard

Ah, the age-old question that has puzzled sailors and landlubbers alike for centuries: how on earth do we remember which side is port and which side is starboard? Fear not, dear reader, for we are about to unlock the secrets of nautical lingo in this fascinating journey of maritime knowledge. Prepare to set sail with us as we uncover the origins, mnemonics, and clever tricks that will forever etch these vital terms in your memory. So hoist the anchor, trim the sails, and let us embark on this enlightening expedition of port and starboard!

Why is it Important to Remember Port and Starboard?

Understanding and remembering the terms “port” and “starboard” is crucial for anyone involved in boating, whether it be for recreational purposes or professional navigation. These terms refer to the left and right sides of a boat or ship respectively when facing towards the bow (front) of the vessel. Ignoring or forgetting these basic terms can lead to confusion, miscommunication, and potentially dangerous situations on the water. In this article, we will explore the importance of remembering port and starboard in navigation, safety, and effective communication.

Understanding the Basics of Port and Starboard

Before delving into the reasons why it is important to remember port and starboard, let’s first establish a clear understanding of what these terms actually mean. Port refers to the left side of a boat or ship, while starboard refers to the right side. These nautical terms have been used for centuries and have become standardized for international maritime communication.

The origin of these terms can be traced back to the early days of naval ships when vessels were steered using a single oar or a steering board, known as a “starboard.” The steering board was typically mounted on the right side of the ship. This right-side steering position became known as “starboard” to avoid confusion with the left side. Over time, the term “port” was adopted to refer to the left side as it was the side most commonly docked at ports.

Importance in Navigation

One of the primary reasons for remembering port and starboard is to ensure effective navigation on the water. When giving or following instructions, such as maneuvering around obstacles or docking at a port, using the correct terminology aids in clear communication between crew members and helps prevent confusion or misunderstandings.

When navigating through narrow channels, strong currents, or crowded waters, precise instructions become even more critical. The ability to quickly identify and respond to commands involving port and starboard can make a significant difference in the safety and efficiency of a boating operation.

Safety and Communication

The importance of remembering port and starboard extends beyond navigational purposes. It plays a crucial role in safety measures and emergency procedures on board. In case of an emergency, crew members must swiftly and effectively communicate instructions to ensure the safety of all individuals on the vessel.

During emergency drills or actual crisis situations, there is often limited time and heightened stress levels. Knowing and correctly using the terms port and starboard can help crew members give and follow directions accurately, facilitating the execution of emergency procedures smoothly and efficiently.

Moreover, the importance of port and starboard extends to communication with other vessels on the water. When interacting with nearby boats or ships, using clear, standardized terms like port and starboard ensures a common language that promotes safe and coordinated navigation.

Mnemonic Techniques to Remember Port and Starboard

Remembering port and starboard can sometimes be challenging, especially for beginners or those with limited boating experience. Fortunately, there are several mnemonic techniques that can assist in easily recalling which side is which.

Using Body Language: Hands

One practical method involves using body language. By extending both arms straight out in front of you, with your palms facing upwards and your thumbs pointing away from each other, the left hand reveals an “L” shape. This “L” shape resembles the letter “L” and can serve as a visual reminder for port, which is on the left side. Consequently, the right hand represents starboard.

Using Body Language: Feet

Another body language technique involves using your feet. Standing upright, with your feet together, imagine you are standing at the bow of a boat. Turn your left foot slightly outwards, forming an “L” shape with your legs. This foot positioning provides a physical reminder that the left foot points towards port.

Similarly, your right foot remains pointed forward, reminding you that it represents starboard. This simple technique can help train your muscle memory and make it easier to associate port with the left side and starboard with the right side.

Using Visual Cues

Visual cues can also aid in remembering port and starboard. Associating colors or distinct objects with each side can serve as a useful mnemonic tool. For example, you could attach a small red sticker or marker to the left side of your boat or visual aids to help remember port as the side with red or something distinctive.

Likewise, a green sticker or marker can be placed on the right side to represent starboard. These visual cues create a mental image that easily associates red with port (left) and green with starboard (right), further reinforcing the correct terminology.

Other Strategies to Remember Port and Starboard

While mnemonic techniques can be helpful, they may not work for everyone. Fortunately, there are other strategies that can aid in remembering port and starboard.

Repetition and Practice

Repetition and practice play a fundamental role in solidifying any skill, including remembering port and starboard. Regular exposure to the terminology and its application in real-life boating situations can steadily engrain the concept into your memory.

By actively using the terms when communicating with crew members or even during recreational boating trips, you will reinforce their meaning and become more confident in your ability to correctly identify port and starboard.

Association with Left and Right

Another technique involves associating port with the left and starboard with the right by drawing parallels with everyday activities. Most people are naturally familiar with the concepts of left and right from their daily lives.

By mentally connecting port with left and starboard with right, you can tap into this existing knowledge and avoid confusion. Over time, it will become second nature to associate the sides of a boat or ship with their corresponding directional terms.

Creating Personalized Mnemonics

Sometimes, creating personalized mnemonics or memory aids can be more effective than relying on generic techniques. Think of phrases, acronyms, or word associations that resonate with you and help you remember port and starboard.

For example, you could create a phrase like “Port – People on the Left,” emphasizing the association between port and the side where people usually gather or embark. Experiment with different methods until you find what works best for you and suits your individual learning style.

Common Mistakes and Misconceptions

Even with various mnemonic techniques and strategies, it is common to encounter mistakes and misconceptions regarding port and starboard. Understanding these errors and misconceptions can help prevent confusion and consolidate your knowledge of the correct meanings.

Confusion between Port and Starboard

One common mistake is confusing port and starboard. If you find yourself consistently getting confused, it may be useful to take a step back and analyze why the confusion arises. Review the definitions, practice visualizing the sides of a boat or ship, and reinforce the association with left and right.

Errors due to Mirroring

Another mistake stems from mirroring the directions. It is essential to remember that port always refers to the left side when facing towards the bow. Mirroring the terms while facing the stern (rear) of the vessel can lead to confusion and miscommunication.

Forgetting Under Pressure

Lastly, under intense pressure or stressful situations, it is possible to forget even the most basic concepts. Fatigue, distractions, or emergencies can significantly impact memory recall. Regular practice and exposure to port and starboard terminology can help mitigate the risk of forgetting under pressure.

Exercises and Activities to Reinforce Port and Starboard

To reinforce the understanding and memory of port and starboard, engaging in exercises and activities can provide practical and interactive learning experiences. Here are a few examples:

Nautical Games and Simulations

Various nautical-themed games and simulations, such as boating board games, virtual reality boating experiences, or online quizzes, can be enjoyable and effective learning tools. These interactive activities offer a fun way to practice identifying port and starboard in different scenarios.

Collaborative Navigation Challenges

Organizing collaborative navigation challenges with friends or fellow boaters can be an excellent way to reinforce port and starboard awareness. These challenges can involve navigating through various markers, buoys, or other vessels while effectively communicating port and starboard commands.

Quizzes and Flashcards

Creating or utilizing quizzes and flashcards specifically designed to test and reinforce knowledge of port and starboard can be helpful. These tools can be used individually or in a group setting to encourage active recall and review of the concepts.

Port and Starboard Symbols and Signals

Port and starboard are not only important terms, but they are also represented through various symbols and signals used in maritime communication and navigation.

International Maritime Signal Flags

Port and starboard are depicted through specific maritime signal flags. The port flag (letter “Juliet” in the International Code of Signals) consists of a white diagonal stripe on a red background. The starboard flag (letter “Kilo”) displays a white diagonal stripe on a green background.

These flags serve as a visual means to communicate port and starboard directions between vessels and are particularly relevant during international maritime operations.

Navigational Charts and Maps

Port and starboard are also indicated on navigational charts and maps used by sailors and mariners. These charts provide detailed information about waterways, hazards, and any local regulations.

Navigational charts use various symbols and colors to identify different features and designate port and starboard sides. Familiarizing yourself with the symbols and conventions used on navigational charts can significantly enhance your understanding and practical application of port and starboard.

Lights and Indicators on Boats

Boats and ships are equipped with navigation lights that serve as crucial visual signals during nighttime or low visibility conditions. These lights are designed to be easily distinguishable and aid in identifying a vessel’s status, direction, and orientation.

Navigation lights use a combination of red and green lights to represent port and starboard respectively. The port side displays a red light, while the starboard side exhibits a green light. Understanding the color-coding system for navigation lights reinforces the connection between the lights and the corresponding sides of a vessel.

Historical Origin of the Terms Port and Starboard

Uncovering the historical origins of the terms port and starboard provides insight into the evolution of their usage and understanding.

Etymology of Port and Starboard

The word “port” derives from the Latin word “portus,” meaning “harbor” or “haven.” Over time, “portus” evolved into the Old English word “port” and eventually became associated with the left side of a vessel commonly docked in ports.

The term “starboard” has a more nautical origin. It originated from the Old English word “steorbord,” which means “steering-side.” As mentioned before, the side of the ship where the steering board, or “starboard,” was located became known as starboard.

Evolution of Terminology

In the past, ships did not have fixed terms for their sides, causing potential confusion during navigation and communication. However, in the late 19th century, the need for standardized maritime communication grew, leading to the adoption of “port” and “starboard” as permanent and distinct designations for the left and right sides of a vessel.

Since then, these terms have become widely recognized and are an essential part of the language used in the maritime industry worldwide.

Common Phrases and Sayings Derived from Port and Starboard

The popularity and significance of port and starboard in boating and maritime culture has led to their integration into common phrases and sayings. Let’s explore a few examples:

Port Side versus Starboard Side

The phrase “port side versus starboard side” is often used to describe a comparison or distinction between two sides or perspectives. It emphasizes the use of port and starboard as a reference point for differentiating between two opposing entities.

Walking the Plank

The phrase “walking the plank” refers to a punishment historically inflicted on sailors and pirates. The victim would be forced to walk along a narrow board protruding from the side of the ship, typically the starboard side, ultimately leading them to fall into the water. This vivid image highlights the association of starboard with punishment or danger.

Other Nautical Expressions

Nautical expressions such as “shipshape,” “three sheets to the wind,” or “getting underway” have become idiomatic phrases used outside the maritime context. While not directly related to port and starboard, these expressions demonstrate the influence and integration of nautical terminology in everyday speech.

Port and Starboard in Different Languages and Cultures

Port and starboard play a crucial role in maritime communication and navigation worldwide. While the English terms “port” and “starboard” are widely recognized and used, different languages and cultures have their own unique equivalents and references.

Translations and Equivalents

In French, the term for port is “babord” and for starboard is “tribord.” Spanish uses “babor” for port and “estribor” for starboard. German refers to port as “backbord” and starboard as “steuerbord.” These translations and equivalents serve the same purpose of clearly distinguishing between the left and right sides of a ship.

Cultural Significance

The importance of port and starboard extends beyond language translation. Different cultures may have specific maritime traditions, beliefs, or superstitions associated with port and starboard.

For example, in some cultures, stepping onto a boat or ship with the left foot first may be considered bad luck due to the association of port with the left side. Cultural significance adds layers of meaning and understanding to the usage of port and starboard, reflecting the diversity and richness of maritime heritage worldwide.


Remembering port and starboard is an essential skill for anyone involved in boating or maritime navigation. The significance of these terms lies in their contribution to safe, effective, and coordinated communication on the water.

By understanding the basics of port and starboard, employing mnemonic techniques, and practicing their application in various boating scenarios, boaters can enhance their navigational skills and ensure better safety.

Furthermore, recognizing the historical origin, symbols, and cultural significance associated with port and starboard adds depth to one’s understanding of these terms and their importance in the broader maritime context.

Continuous learning, reinforcement, and improvement of port and starboard knowledge are critical for boaters and maritime enthusiasts alike. By fostering an understanding of these fundamental concepts, we can navigate the waters confidently, communicate effectively, and embrace the rich nautical heritage passed down through generations.

David Wright
Hi, I'm David Wright and I'm the author behind DockG, a web site dedicated to inflatable dock floating platforms. I'm passionate about providing the best possible information on these revolutionary floating docks, and I'm constantly striving to provide up-to-date, accurate and helpful tips and advice on the subject to anyone who visits the site. As an avid outdoorsman and water enthusiast, I'm constantly in search of the best ways to enjoy time spent on the water, and I'm confident that the content I provide on DockG will help anyone looking to get the most out of their inflatable dock floating platform.