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Home » Why is it Called Starboard Side? Exploring the History and Etymology of Maritime Terminology

Why is it Called Starboard Side? Exploring the History and Etymology of Maritime Terminology

A Concise Response: The Starboard Side

The term “starboard side” refers to the right side of a vessel when facing forward. The origin of the term can be traced back to Old Norse and Old English languages, where it was derived from the words “styri” and “bord” respectively, which meant “steering” and “board” or “side.” In the early days of sailing, ships were steered using a steering oar or rudder attached to the right side of the stern. This led to the name “starboard” being associated with the right side of a ship.

Tracing the Etymology of Starboard

To better understand why it is called the starboard side, we must delve into the history and etymology of the word. The term “starboard” has its roots in two ancient languages:

  • Old Norse: The word “stýri” means “rudder” or “steering oar,” while “borð” refers to the side of a ship. Combined, these words form “stýriborð,” which translates to “steering side.”
  • Old English: The Old English word “stēorbord” is a compound of “stēor” (meaning “steer”) and “bord” (meaning “board” or “side”). This also translates to “steering side.”

Over time, these terms evolved into the Middle English “sterbord” and eventually the modern English “starboard.”

Steering Oar: The Origin of Starboard

The term “starboard” has its origins in the early days of sailing when ships were steered using a single steering oar or rudder. This oar was typically located on the right side of the vessel, as most sailors were right-handed. As maritime historian Dr. John Kretschmer explains, The use of a steering oar on the right side of the ship was the predominant method of controlling direction for centuries, and as a result, the right side became synonymous with the steering apparatus, and thus the name starboard was born.

Starboard Versus Port: The Two Sides of a Ship

To avoid confusion when referring to the different sides of a ship, sailors use specific terms: “starboard” for the right side and “port” for the left side. The term “port” is derived from the Old English word “port,” which originally meant “gate” or “doorway.” The connection to the left side of a ship comes from the practice of docking ships on their left side to protect the steering oar on the starboard side. This allowed sailors to easily access the port or harbor.

Why Not Just Use “Right” and “Left”?

One may wonder why sailors didn’t simply use the terms “right” and “left” to refer to the different sides of a ship. The reason for this is to avoid confusion, as the direction “right” and “left” can change depending on which way a person is facing. By using specific terms for each side of the ship, sailors can ensure clear communication, regardless of their orientation on the vessel.

Modern Usage of Starboard and Port

While the steering oar is no longer a common feature on ships, the terms “starboard” and “port” continue to be used in modern maritime language. These terms are crucial for navigation, communication, and safety at sea. Both recreational boaters and professional mariners rely on these terms to avoid misunderstandings and ensure smooth operations.

Starboard and Port in Navigation Lights

To further enhance safety and prevent collisions, ships are equipped with navigation lights that follow a specific color code. The starboard side of a vessel displays a green light, while the port side displays a red light. This system allows vessels to quickly identify the direction in which other ships are moving, particularly during nighttime or periods of low visibility.

Starboard and Port in Sailing Rules

Understanding the distinction between starboard and port is essential for following the rules of the road at sea, known as the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs). These rules help sailors navigate safely and avoid accidents. For example, the “stand-on” vessel (the vessel that has the right of way) in a crossing situation is usually the one that has the other vessel on its starboard side. By knowing which side is starboard, sailors can effectively adhere to these regulations and maintain safe distances from other vessels.

Conclusion: The Enduring Legacy of Starboard

The term “starboard” has a rich history that dates back to the early days of sailing when ships were controlled using a steering oar on the right side. Though steering oars have been replaced by modern rudders, the terminology has endured and remains a vital part of maritime communication and navigation. Understanding the origins and usage of “starboard” and “port” not only helps us appreciate the evolution of sailing but also emphasizes the importance of clear communication and safety at sea.

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