In defense of port and starboard

Sailing is full of lingo and in that respect is more like grad school than any sport I've ever been involved in. And just like grad school about half of the terminology serves the useful purpose of helping you be specific in your statements - for example, "pull the rope" doesn't work very well when there are a dozen ropes. As long as everyone speaks sailing then "pull the port jib sheet" is a much more effective statement. Plus, every weird little piece on a boat needs a unique name to avoid sentences like "can you pull the little stabby metal pin thingy from the whatchamacallit so I can move the whatchamacallit to the thingamajig"*.

However, also like grad school about half of the words seem to exist simply to separate the wheat from the chaff, to make the speaker sound like he belongs in the club or they are arcane words used by sailors today as a nod to tradition.

When I first started sailing I thought the use of port and starboard was a bit silly. This was because we mostly used the words while steering or when pointing out another boat while we were in the same physical location as each other. In those instances, we shared a common reference point and so left and right were as effective as port and starboard.

As we began talking to each other while we were in different locations (front and back of the boat; inside and outside the boat), having a common understanding of directional terms became more tricky and port and starboard started to make more sense. Now that I've spent some time hunched upside down in a lazarette (inside the back of the boat in a damp dark hole) while Carol was perched on the stern (outside of the back of the boat over the water), I see the usefulness of being able to refer to port and starboard, and inboard (closer to the centerline) and outboard (farther from the centerline) for that matter.

Still, some nautical terms are more confusing than clarifying. For example, the head refers both to the bathroom generally and the toilet specifically, so I still use "bathroom" and "toilet". Some terms are neutral (e.g., the galley can easily be called the kitchen without confusion so I call it the kitchen).

Plus, I kind of enjoy watching people's eyes widen when I call it a kitchen. I'm just a wee bit evil like that.

*This sentence particularly doesn't work if your husband is a native francophone.


  1. Even if you don't talk like a pirate, you probably already speak sailing - more than you know.


  2. Oh... You're so naughty! I can just imagine the eye-widening. I think I may just follow in your footsteps on this one.



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