January 31, 2016

Port and starboard poppycock

AMERICA’S largest-circulation boating magazine is trying to educate landlubbers. The latest issue of BoatU.S. magazine tries to explain why we sailors refer to port and starboard instead of left and right.

The answer, says BoatU.S., “is that the starboard side is ALWAYS the starboard side, no matter which way you, or anyone else, is facing on board.”

Now I have heard this explanation many times before, and the lack of logic has always offended me. Who in his right mind would suggest that the right side of a boat becomes the left side if you’re facing backward? 

What about the bow and the stern? Do we call the front part the bow because it’s always in the front, no matter which way we’re facing? Of course not. We refer to such things as port and starboard to confuse landlubbers. We call the front part the bows and the back part the stern because it makes us seem smarter. It’s sailor talk and obviously too difficult for mere landlubbers to master.

I cringe when I read the false explanations in magazines. “Imagine that you’re on a boat and the captain asks you to quickly put fenders over the right side,” says BoatU.S. “If you were facing one another, would that be your right or his?”

Well, for Pete’s sake, does your right arm become your left arm if you turn around and face the other way?  Why should the right side of a boat suddenly become the left side because a human being turned around?

“Imagine it’s getting dark, or heavy weather is upon you, and you can’t see which way people are facing on the boat. Saying ‘It’s to your left!’ or ‘Look to the right!’ would make no sense to anyone and would create confusion that could threaten the crew and the boat,” says the magazine.

What poppycock. It sure makes you wonder how people get along when they’re ashore on dark nights. How the heck do they manage to get anything done without running into each other?

The truth is the there is no reason why we shouldn’t use left and right instead of port and starboard. The U.S. Navy uses left and right for steering instructions. The U.S. Coast Guard uses left and right in place of port and starboard. “HARD RIGHT (LEFT) RUDDER means put the rudder over to the right the maximum degrees allowed by that class of ship,” says the book.  If it’s good enough for them, it should be good enough for readers of BoatU.S. magazine.

The real reason we use port and starboard, and the rest of the nautical nomenclature, is that we simply continue to use the words that have evolved over the ages as ships have evolved. We didn’t deliberately invent the word starboard so dumb sailors wouldn’t get dizzy trying to find their right hands at night. It derived from the old words for steering board, the side over which the steering oar was traditionally placed.  And the port side was the side you placed against the quay in port, so you didn’t damage your steering oar.

But there’s no reason whatsoever why we shouldn’t talk about the front end, the back end, the right side and the left side, if we wanted to, so that anybody, even dumb sailors, could understand. And, come to think of it, one of the things I love about Washington State car ferries, which have front ends at both ends, is that they label them End No. 1 and End No. 2.  No confusion there, no matter which way you’re facing.

Today’s Thought
Alice had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say.
— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

“Doctor, I think I’ve got water on the knee.”
“No problem, I’ll just give it a little tap.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Sarthurk said...

Oh, I would beg to differ. Defining port, starboard, fore and aft are terms to eliminate the ability of someone to mistake directions. When I call out a direction on a boat, I'll even throw in the "O'clock" direction as well. Port side at 7 O clock. Every body knows not to look elsewhere. If I'm in view of a compass, I'll be able to describe direction by the number of degrees. So 7 O clock would be about 210 degrees. So using the compass doesn't really relate to the boat, but shows the direction in relation to the earth 12 O clock is The bow. So to complicate my blathering. 360 or 0 degrees is the bow. But using a compass....oh never mind.
I'm preaching to the choir anyway. :)

SV Pelagia said...

Regarding the Washington ferries: If you are at the number 1 end and have an urgent need for number 2, do you have to run all the way to the number 2 end?

John Vigor said...

Well no, Pelagia, as a matter of fact you can do a Number Two at Number 1 End as well as a Number One at Number 2 End. In Washington we have our ends covered. (And they're both sharp ends.)
John V.

Sal Maris said...

Left and right for steering commands did not come into being until WW II on US ships. It seems there was a shortage of seamen and farmers didn't know their port from their starboard. Port and starboard steering commands are used everywhere else in the world, even on US ships when a command is given by an Egyptian Pilot say on the Suez Canal.