2023 European Rowing Championships, Bled, Slovenia / World Rowing/Benedict Tufnell

Welcome to part 4 in World Rowing’s “Defining Rowing” series aiming to help spectators and athletes alike brush up on some of the sport’s most used but least understood words and phrases. So far we have looked at “oar” and “blade” (part 1), words for “boat” (part 2), and “scull” and “sweep” (part 3).

This time we turn our attention towards two of the most used direction words in rowing: “port”, “starboard” (we’ll look at “bow” and “stern” next time).

In rowing, like other boating activities, “port” means “left” and “starboard” means “right”, but only when you are facing towards the “bow” (front) of the rowing boat or shell. For coxswains, who always face forwards, this makes sense, but for rowers, who face the “stern” (back), things are the other way around. Understanding some of the history of these words can help clear up any confusion.


In rowing (as in other boating activities) “port” means the left side of the boat when someone is facing forwards.


“Port” meaning a boat’s left side, is directly related to another sense of the word, meaning “harbour” or “docking place”. This evolved from Latin portus meaning “door” or “entrance”, and English still has that sense in words like “portal” (gateway). The fact that Latin portus appears to come from an even older word that meant “to carry” or “to lead” seems fitting since a crew’s lead rower often has their sweep oar on the port side of the shell.

Port vs. Larboard

The word “port” has only been common for a few hundred years. It replaced “larboard”, an older word with a similar sense of the side of a boat where things are loaded on board (i.e. the side facing the port). The fact that “larboard” and “starboard” sound so similar seems to have motivated the wider use of “port” to avoid confusion.


In rowing (as in other boating activities) “starboard” means the right side of the boat when someone is facing forwards.


“Starboard” comes from Old English steorbord (steer-board). This means the side (board) of the boat with the steering oar or rudder, which was often attached somewhat forward from the boat’s stern on

the right side of the boat, presumably to avoid bumping against the dock on the left side of the boat. Dragon boats offer a good illustration of this although the dragon boat rudder is usually mounted on the “port” (left) side of the boat.

Fun Fact: Strokeside and Bowside

While “Port” and “Starboard” are generic nautical terms used by many rowers, the sport has also inspired other words to talk about a rowing shell’s “left” and “right” sides, most notably “strokeside” (port) and “bowside” (starboard). These expressions come from the fact that in most cases, the stern most rower (the “stroke”) in a sweep rowing crew has their oar on the “port” side and the rower closest to the bow has their oar on the “starboard”.

We’re look in more depth at these terms when we examine rowing’s other essential direction words “bow” and “stern” in the next installment of World Rowing’s “Defining Rowing” series.

Around the world

Rowing, of course, is a global sport and even though English is World Rowing’s official language, rowers speak a multitude of languages.

How do you say “port” and “starboard” in the language(s) used where you row? Be sure to share on World Rowing’s official channels and some of these will be highlighted in future when we look at rowing words and phrases from around the world.