Noordam tied up with its port side against Canada Place.
Photo © Aaron Saunders

Irregardless of whether you’re on your first cruise or your fifty-first, chances are you’ve heard the terms port and starboard.  After all, on a ship directions are never referred to as ‘right’ or ‘left’, given that the orientation of each side can change depending on which direction you’re facing.
Many of you probably even know which is which.  When facing forward, towards the bow of the ship, port refers to the left-hand side of the vessel, and starboard the right.  But why do they call it that?  Here’s where history comes into play.
Before ships had rudders, they were steered by an oarsman who sat in the stern of the vessel.  Depending on the size of the ship, the rudder needed to be scaled accordingly.  The largest of these were so massive, and weighed such a tremendous amount of weight, that basic physics took over and necessitated a broader handle, which spilled over to the right-hand side of the ship.  The right-hand side was chosen for the simple fact that the majority of people are right-handed.  The word itself comes from the Old English word sterobord and literally means the side of the ship that is steered from.
Since the steering apparatus was commonly mounted on the right hand side of the ship, in order to prevent damaging it vessels routinely tied up with their left side to the dock, or port.  Hence, the port side of the ship was literally the side facing the port itself!
The bridge area of the Volendam.
Note the white running light atop the gym and the red
port-side running light bottom right.
Photo © Aaron Saunders 
In order to distinguish the sides of the ship from one another, and ships passing in the night to easily tell which direction the other was sailing in, a system of navigation lights was developed that is still in use to this day not only on ships, but aircraft as well.
Aircraft have the same terminology and lights.
Note the red port-side running light on the Air Canada 767,
and the green light bottom center.
Photo © Aaron Saunders
It was determined that a green running light would represent the starboard side of the ship, while a red running light would represent port.  White running lights would be placed fore and aft so that the length of the vessel can be judged at night.  In the days before radar and GPS navigation systems, this was critical.  
Colored running lights are always placed near the navigation bridge; sometimes they are located directly on the structure of the bridge wing itself; other times they are located on the superstructure of the ship just below the bridge wing.  In all cases, they must be placed in the immediate area of the navigation bridge.  On aircraft, the port and starboard running lights are mounted on the wingtips.
So the next time you’re on your way to the Lido and someone asks what side the desserts are on, you can confidently answer: port or starboard.
 
 

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