Areas of the Boat

June 14, 2021
Areas of the Boat. A history of Port, Starboard, Stern, and Bow
What are the areas of the boat called?

The areas of the boat are:  Port (left side), Starboard (right side), Stern (rear) and Bow (front).  It is interesting on how these modern terms came to be.  It’s taken for granted sometimes.  First and foremost there needed to be consistency on the ship.  If a Captain is shouting orders, clearly everyone needs to know what exactly the Captain needs.  Also consider which way the Captain was facing or even which way the crew was facing the Captain.  There are several theories on this bit of history but I believe all of them melted into our modern day terms.  Read on to see about how theses terms came to be.


Initially, it is believed the term starboard derived from the object called a steer board.  The Germans used the term steuerbord, the Dutch term stuurboord.  Even the Old English used the term steorboard.  Even though foreign terms, we can kind of still make out the word “board” in all of them.  Furthermore we can also make out the word “steer” as well.  Long before ships had rudders, they used a steering board.  Sometimes called an oar, the board to steer the ship was towards the right side of the stern.  That is to say the back of the boat.  It was towards the right because most people were right handed.  Sorry lefties!  Anyhow, the steering board was on the right side and eventually transformed into the word Starboard.  

Meanwhile, there is another theory regarding the Starboard.  You might have heard of Celestial Navigation.  Well, back in the day, they had a step that deployed right of the helm elevating the Captain.  This gave the navigator a clearer view of the sky.  This step, or board, eventually becomes the Star Board.   Since it was deployed right…you get the point.


The word “port” comes from the Latin “portus” meaning “port or harbor”.  Actually in even earlier times it meant “entrance or passage”.   In either case how did lead to the left side of the boat being called port?  Remember the “steering board” was on the right side of the stern.  As a result, a ship would pull into a port and dock on the left side of the boat.  The Captain did not want to damage the steering board.  This eventually became know simply as Port side.  An easy way to remember this is Port is 4 letters like Left.


The word “bow” is pronounced like we are taking a bow forward towards our audience.  Certainly an easy way to remember the Bow is the front of the boat.  Bow, as in bow and arrow, means to curve.  The sides of the ship begin to bow as we get towards the forward part of a ship.   The sides curve to meet at the most forward point of the ship.  This forms the triangular portion of the ship at the front.  Because of this, we now call it the Bow.


The back of the boat is the stern.  It could have derived from the word “steer” in many languages.  We learned about the steering board earlier.  Have another look at all the examples of the steering board above.  How about the fact that the Old Frisian called the rudder the “stiarne”.  That kind of looks familiar doesn’t it?  So was it a melting of all these words?  Did someone misspeak and it caught on?  In any case, we do know that the ship is steered from the rear or back of the boat.

In Conclusion

It is fun and interesting to learn about these things like areas of the boat.  Likewise if we are avid boaters it’s kind of cool to know the history.  Here is a great page from the Macmillian Dictionary site of a whole bunch of nautical terms:  parts of boats and ships – synonyms and related words | Macmillan Dictionary

We here at Connecticut Boating Certificates LLC are proud to teach this topic in our Licensing class.  Please visit our Public Course Schedule for more information.