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Cruise Ship Directions: Forward, Aft, Bow, Stern, Port and Starboard Explained

Susan Moynihan
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Mandara Spa on Norwegian Dawn

The maritime industry has its own vernacular, used on naval vessels, commercial ships and cruises alike. When it comes to cruise ship directions, rather than using words like "right" or "left" (which can be confusing depending on which way the speaker is facing), the industry has adopted the nautical terms that are more specific. Here's a quick rundown of the directional words to use onboard.

Bow: The bow of a ship is the part of the ship that faces forward when the ship underway. The bow is usually distinguished by a sharply angled hull, which provides less resistance, making it easier for the ship to plow through water.

Stern: The stern is located at the back end of the ship, opposite from the bow.

Forward: Forward on a ship means toward the direction of the bow.

Aft: Aft on a ship means toward the direction of the stern.

Port: Port refers to the left side of the ship, when facing forward.

Starboard: Starboard refers to the right side of the ship, when facing forward.

If you're having trouble remembering which side is which, here's an easy trick: The words port and left both have four letters. Just know that the direction only applies when you're facing toward the bow of the ship.

Port and starboard are used onboard (i.e., to get to the hot tub, take the aft starboard staircase) but they are also used as navigational terms. Per international maritime convention, when two motorized ships are traveling on a path where they would potentially collide, both vessels should alter their paths to starboard so that the ships pass port side to port side. Seafaring vessels use universal colors to reflect these directions, with green denoting starboard and red denoting port. If you see your ship at night, you'll notice the colors used as running lights, with green lights on the starboard side and red lights on the port side, so other ships can easily navigate around them.

Updated January 08, 2020

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