Ship Nomenclature

Port and starboard are necessary terms, definitely not antiquated.


What about pointy end and not quite pointy end?


Port and starboard are wonderful terms, as are deck, and overhead, and bulkhead, and gunwale, and the most beautiful word of all is athwartships, and I hope we all keep using these words forever. I still call boats “she” and it’s not a rolling chock but a bilge keel, so there are my credentials. But explain to me with a straight face, how the bottom drops out of the boat if you say left and right, and floor and ceiling, and wall and side, and crosswise? We use the words not because they are necessary, but because we are rightly proud of our profession.


Left and right don’t have the same meaning as port and starboard, which is why we use port and starboard to begin with.

Ceiling has a different meaning on a boat, which is why we use ‘overhead’.

Floor has a different meaning on a boat, which is why we use ‘deck’, or for the interior sometimes ‘sole’.

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I was on a lifeboat course in Dover UK years ago. We were using the oars and I was the Coxswain. When I ordered backwater port one of the starboard oarsmen started back-watering. When I told him to stop he pointed out that he was facing the opposite way to me and that I needed to say which port I meant! He’d been a steward at sea for a while but had no idea that port was the left hand side when facing the front. When I explained this to him he said that he now realised why he was always in trouble for not being where he was supposed to be.


Left and right are different based on which direction you’re facing, port and starboard are specific sides of a vessel.


Left and Right is relative to you, no matter which direction you are facing.
Port and Starboard are relative to the bow of the vessel, and do not change even if the direction you yourself changes.

If I direct you to the port lifeboat, there is no ambiguity. The one to your left changes whether you are facing fore or aft.


The only ceiling I remember is the square underneath the hatch of a breakbulk freighter. An obscure term, even in the days of stick-ships. But there may another use of which I am unaware.

Certainly, and as I have indicated, I hope these terms don’t go away. But they are fine shadings of meaning for the same thing, or words bought down from two different regions (shackle/clevis pin). IMO nowadays they are meant more to put the neophyte in their place than anything else (“You fool, only an idiot wouldn’t know the difference between a floor and a sole.”)

I’m always reminded of the story a bosun told me in the academy about why everything on a ship is port and starboard, except helm commands, which are left and right. He said during the outset of WW2 (and he should know, he beginning his career then) the Navy and Shipping Board had to train men quick to be sailors, by the thousands. And they had to teach them how to steer, and there were many collisions in the convoys, as 18-year old farm boys got their ports mixed up with their starboards. So the Navy and the Shipping Board gave up. They threw in the towel. In convoys it would be left and right to the helmsman, and port and starboard for everything else, and so it has been.

That’s tradition colliding, so to speak, with practicality.

Like hayfoot and strawfoot in the Army in earlier times?



Ah! So you mean the floor and the walls! (Just joking). :wink:

Only if you call the fantail the back deck. :face_with_monocle:

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-in best coonass accent- “Sha, what you mean dat not the back deck mi?” :laughing:

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When I was an O.S. in 1976 aboard the S.S. Delta Paraguay, I hear from my watch partner A.B. Freddie Hazard (who had been sailing since 1929) that the adoption of the words left and right for helm commands was mandated under U.S. law because of the confusion when the terms Starboard and Larboard were still used. I can’t confirm Freddie’s assessment but he was a hell of a seaman despite frequently being a prick. He was kind of typical of the seaman of his day in that he knew he could not go ashore and drink when he was on the ship or he would foul up and get fired.

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It’s true:

§ 58.25-35 Helm arrangements.

(a) The arrangement of each steering station, other than in the steering-gear compartment, must be such that the helmsman is abaft the wheel. The rim of the wheel must be plainly marked with arrows and lettering for right and left rudder, or a suitable notice indicating these directions must be posted directly in the helmsman’s line of sight.

(b) Each steering wheel must turn clockwise for “right rudder” and counterclockwise for “left rudder.” When the vessel is running ahead, after clockwise movement of the wheel the vessel’s heading must change to the right.


False. Clearly, it’s poopdeck.

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Nope, tumblehome.
And we still use port and starboard for steering commands because we train our helmsman to understand them.
Europeans (which we will no longer be by this time tomorrow, huzzah!) use the clock face when anchoring and locating targets etc. but us Brits still use points of the compass.


I like the whimsy of tumblehome as well!

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My other favourite one, ideal for catching out first trippers, is spurlash.
That’s the noise that the anchor makes when it hits the water.