Since You Asked: Mariners use 'port' to clear up 'larboard' confusion

I know that the left side of a ship is port, because it's the side by the dock. But why is the right side starboard? I thought maybe you could see the stars from the side away from the port, but couldn't you see them on the other side, too?

— Mary M., Medford

Ah, Mary, you're partly right about left and partly wrong about left, but totally wrong about right. Left is port, all right, but the term was a substitution for an earlier one with the aim of clearing up confusion.

"Starboard" isn't about stars. It's from Old English steorbord, meaning the side on which the ship is steered. That's because, before center-mounted rudders on ship's sterns became standard, many vessels were piloted by a "steer board" that was essentially an oversize paddle mounted on the right (since most sailors were right-handed).

The other side of the vessel was the larboard, or loading side. It was the side brought next to the dock because you didn't want to land the other way and damage your steer board.

Eventually "larboard" gave way to "port" because "larboard" and "starboard" sounded too much alike to sailors when the wind and the waves were up.

By the way, red is the universal color of lights on the port side of a vessel. Green for starboard. A way to remember this is that port wine is red. Salute!

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

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