Port vs. Starboard – What’s the Difference?

If you are a sailor on an oceangoing vessel, or even a fisherman on a small fishing boat, you will need to know how to navigate.

It is not enough to know the difference between north, south, east, and west—you will also need to know how directions independent of the way a ship is headed.

Port and starboard refer to fixed locations on the ship itself, which are useful since left and right differ depending on where a sailor is looking.

What is the Difference Between Port and Starboard?

In this post, I will compare port vs. starboard. I will use each of these words in an example sentence, so you can see them in context.

Plus, I will show you a helpful memory tool that will help you navigate using port or starboard in the future.

When to Use Port

port versus starboardWhat does port mean? Port is a navigational term used in seafaring. When one faces the bow, or front, of a ship, the port side is to the left.

In the past, ships would come to port with the left side of the boat towards the dock, since the rudder mechanism was on the right side. This practice led to the left side of the boat being named the port side.

For example,

  • “The pirates are fast approaching on our port side,” said the first mate.
  • The port side of the ship faces the sunset when the boat is facing north.

The word port functions as an adjective in sentences, where it has a similar meaning to left in that word’s directional sense.

When to Use Starboard

Definition of starboard definition of port definitionWhat does starboard mean? Starboard is also a seafaring term. It is the opposite of port (left side of the ship), which means it is the right side of a boat. It also functions as an adjective.

For example,

  • “Hard to starboard!” cried Captain Kirk.
  • The Titanic hit an iceberg on its starboard side and sank, killing many passengers.

In the past, ships were smaller and steered using a hand-operated rudder. According to the US National Ocean Service, the handle for the rudder was mounted on the right side of the ship, since most sailors were right-handed.

The word starboard is a compound of the old English words stéor, meaning steer, and bord, meaning the side of a boat. Starboard, then, is literally the steering side of a boat.

Trick to Remember the Difference

Define starboard and define portThose not familiar with seafaring terms often have trouble remembering these two at first, so let’s go over a trick to remember starboard vs. port.

These words refer to fixed locations on a boat, no matter which direction a person or the boat itself is pointed.

  • The port side is always to the left when one faces the bow.
  • The starboard side is always to the right when one faces the bow.

Since left and right are in alphabetical order, and port and starboard are also in alphabetical order, you will always know the associations between these words as long as you can remember your alphabet.

Another way to remember is the port and left are both shorter words than right and starboard.


Is it port or starboard? Port and starboard refer to fixed locations on a boat.

  • The port side is to the left of sailors when facing the bow of the ship.
  • The starboard side is to the right when one faces the bow.

If you can’t remember whether starboard or port is the correct word to use, try our tricks outlined above.