Have you ever read a book or watched a movie and just shook your head because you did not understand half of what they were saying? That is “nautical speak,” it sounds like English but makes no sense whatsoever. You like Errol Flynn as Captain Blood or Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, you enjoy reading about Titanic, the Queen Anne’s Revenge or World War Two submarines but you just don’t understand what is going on half the time. You could never understand “sailor speak,” it’s too complicated and makes no sense at all – right?
Well like so many other professions that’s what the insiders would like you to think. After this series you’ll know some of the basics of the mariner’s language and it will make sense to you. And if it makes sense to you, you’ll remember it. When we are done you will realize that expert whose book you bought after seeing him on a Titanic special is not as expert as you thought. You will know why he was wrong when he said, “As the Titanic sank she listed down at the bow.”
So sit back and relax while you learn to speak like a sailor. We won’t give you too many words or phrases all at once. So the next time you are on one of those wind jammer cruises and you hear the captain yell to his crew, “prepare to jibe,” you’ll know exactly what he is talking about. You’ll also know what the difference is between jibe and tack. Some of the methods we’ll use are not exactly straight out of the sailor’s manual, but they’ll make it easier to remember your new words.
We start with the words port and starboard. The two most basic words in sailor speak. First we’ll get to just how these two words evolved then an easy way to always remember which side is your “port side.”
Hundreds of years ago, even before Columbus, ships did not have a rudder. An oar was used to steer the ship. They would put the oar over the side at the back of a ship and since most men were right handed the oar went over the right side of the ship. They would twist the oar one way to make the ship turn right and the other way to make it turn left, keeping the oar parallel with the ship when they wanted to go straight – much like you would do with a paddle in a canoe.
As ships got bigger the oar they used to steer the ship became bigger too, much bigger than the other oars aboard the ship. So it began to be call the steering oar or steering board. From that came the word starboard.
With the steering oar over the right side of the ship it is much easier to tie a ship to the dock on the other side or left side of the ship. They would load the ship from the dock on the side tied to the dock, so that side became the “loading side” or Loading board” which was shortened to larboard. There were times, particularly when at sea in a storm, that it was easy to confuse larboard and starboard. Since ships tied up on the larboard side of the ship and that side faces the port it became known as the “port side” of the ship. Now you know how port and starboard came to be used.
Now we will learn what the difference is between port & starboard and left & right. If we are facing south and I ask you to point to the rising sun, you raise you left hand. If we are facing north and I ask you to point to the rising sun, you raise your right hand. Right and left are always YOUR right and YOUR left. This can also become confusing. “Go to the left side of the ship.” Okay, does he mean my left, his left, or the ships left. If the order is passing through other people it could become confused as well. If someone on deck is giving an order to a man 200 feet above the deck on a mast it is easy to confuse words. Also a ship can be a very loud place particularly in a storm and the more words used in an order the greater the chance for someone to not hear all of the order and become confused.
So just as left and right is always YOUR left and YOUR right, port and starboard is always the SHIP’S port and the SHIP’S starboard. So now we are left with which side is port and how to you know. Standing on the ship you face the bow (front of the ship) put own your left arm – that is the port side of the ship. And that is ALWAYS the port side of the ship.
One more thing about port and starboard we need to learn. The red navigational light on a ship is always on the port side and the green navigational light is always on the starboard side. At the bottom of the article I will give you an example of how that is used, but you don’t need to read it if you don’t want to.
Now we come to the last part of the article. You’ve learned that port is the SHIP’S left, starboard the SHIP’S right, and you’ve learned the red light is always on the port side and green light on the starboard side. But how the hell do you remember that? Specially if you don’t have a chance to use that information for many weeks or months from now!
The short words are on the left and the long words are on the right. (Yes, the pun was intended. It will make it easier for you to remember.)
Now here is the extra I promised you.
When you are at sea at night a ship has to be very close for you to see it by the light of the moon and stars. Long before you can see the ship in detail you may only be able to see the dark silhouette of the ship. By the time the ship is close enough for you to see details it would be too late for the ships to turn to avoid hitting each other.
Have no fear running lights are here. Long before you can see a ship, you will see its running lights. There are many kinds of lights you will see on different ships. Some of them will tell you what kind of ship you are looking at, but we are not going to worry about all those other lights. We are going to worry about just two lights the red and green running lights.
International law has specific rules about how many degrees wide the lights must be able to be seen and how far away you must be able to see them. But we are not learning navigation. We are just seeing how useful these two lights are at night.
First situation. You are on deck looking forward and you see a ship ahead of you. You can see a red light to your left and a green light to your right. This ship is going the same general direction you are. If you are sailing faster you will overtake or pass him.
Second situation. You are on deck looking forward and you see a ship ahead of you. You can see a green light to your left and a red light to your right. This ship is going in the opposite general direction you are. You are on a collision course and one of you needs to turn to avoid hitting each other. Not good.
Third situation. You are on deck looking forward and you see a ship ahead of you. You see a green light but you do not see a red light. You are looking at the starboard side of a ship that is moving left to right.
Fourth situation. You are on deck looking forward and you see a ship ahead of you. You see a red light but you do not see a green light. You are looking at the port side of a ship that is moving right to left.
As you can see these two lights can be help you avoid running into another ship.
I hope you enjoyed and learned something. And remember – the short words port, red, and left on one side of the ship. While the long words are on the other side of the ship – starboard, green, and right.