Boat/ship handedness

The question of power-boat wheels is outside my ken, but the reason for the universal right-handedness of lanes in navigation is that the center rudder is a relatively recent invention. The “steerboard” used to be mounted on the right-hand side, for the sake of right-handed steersmen. That also gave us the word “starboard” (and “port”, too, since that was the side you wanted to dock on, so as not to crunch the steerboard).

The Mailbag item to which John refers can be found via this link: … please read the Mailbag item before making comments.

I’ve noticed in reading about the days of wooden ships that on board orintation was more often determined by the direction of the wind rather than right or left. The weather deck was devided between the weather or wind’ard side and the lee or le’ward side. The weather side was where the person who gave instructions to the helm (usually the sailing master or one of his mates) would stand, since it gave the clearest view (the sails being blown toward the le’ward deck)

Back to the original question, the answer has more to do with etymology than it does maritime technology. Starboard (right-side) literally means “steering-side”.

Port is a recent usage that was adopted to prevent confusion between “starboard” and the traditional “larboard”. "Larboard meaning “loading-side”.

So, really, are you sayin’ that the steering wheel’s on the right, because the rudder used to be on the right, and the rudder used to be on the right because it made for a more comfortable steering position for a right-handed rudder-operator?


A) I have no idea whether there is any connection between power-boat steering wheels and lane usage or ancient steerboard location. The original question/answer rather implies that there is not.

B) Little boats didn’t used to have rudders in the first place, because little boats were rowboats.

C) Big boats and ships used to have steerboards on the side because center-mounted rudders on big hulls were a nasty engineering problem. The arm connecting the rudder to the tiller had to be long and strong and straight, and the resulting tiller required superhuman strength to manage. (Why do you think tall-ship steering wheels A] have hand grips, B] are nearly as big as a man and C] are, even so, massively geared down?) The side-mounted steerboard was relatively simple.

D) And given that it was side-mounted, it was put on the right for right-handed steersmen.

E) And given that, the present universal lane rules and the assumption that the “port” is on the left naturally followed.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

The “stay to the right” rules are by international convention. At the original conferences in the 1880’s, the basic “ship on the right has the right-of-way” (like a U.S. four-way stop sign) was adopted for power-driven vessels, as well as keeping right in a head-on situation.

It was also decided that red buoys should be to port when going upstream, and green to starboard; the running lights on ships were colored the same.

The U.S., being obstinate, adopted for itself “red right returning”, red buoys to starboard going upstream, and black to port (lights, if fitted, were green). We still do that under the present system, though our port buoys are green now.

Steve – ex-Navy QM(SS)

Thus the tee-shirt reading “Starboard wine is green”.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

Without any authority for whay I say: I had always assumed that right-handed steering was to see more easily those boats on one’s starboard side. Those boats have the the right-of-way.