14 May 2015

Port, Starboard and sailing terms

Stern-mounted steering oar of a Roman Rhine Boat, 1st century AD
I was looking up some terms that are used in sailing but also used in common speech. Most landlubbers know bow and aft as the front and back of a boat. I was looking at the term tacking - as in taking a new tack on an issue. Tacking (or coming about) is a sailing maneuver by which a sailing vessel (which is sailing approximately into the wind) turns its bow into the wind so that the direction from which the wind blows changes from one side to the other.

That term led me to search for a few other sailing terms including the commonly heard port and starboard. Most people know they mean left and right respectively, but what is the origin of these terms.

Both are very old terms. Starboard comes from early boating even before ships had rudders. (Sidenote: rudder itself comes from Old English rōther ‘paddle, oar’ and Dutch roer, as well as the German ruder.) They were steered by use of a specialized steering oar. The oarsman was generally right-handed sailors and so the oar was on the right side. The word itself comes from Old English steorbord, literally meaning the side on which the ship is steered.

The earlier form of "port" in nautical use is larboard, from Middle-English ladebord and earlier in Old English as bæcbord. The origin of lade seems less determined but it is generally connected with the verb lade (to load) because it referred to the side on which cargo was loaded. I have read that the term larboard could be too easily misheard on the high seas as starboard and so port replaced it. It seem logical because port matches the practice of sailors mooring ships on the left side at ports in order to prevent the steering oar from being crushed.

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