directions on board ship

Know Your Directions on Board a Ship

When you board your cruise ship and take to the sea, it can seem like everyone around you is suddenly speaking a different language. From the location of your cabin to the direction you need to walk to find the dining room, most locations on the ship are going to be relayed to you in standard nautical terms.

Unfortunately for most “landlubbers,” you probably aren’t going to be used to hearing or interpreting some of these words on a daily basis – especially when it’s your first time cruising.

Here, therefore, are a few of the most important directional terms that you need to be acquainted with if you want to avoid wandering the ship hopelessly lost.

boat ship directions Terminology
Boat Directions Terminology

Port vs. Starboard

You’ve doubtlessly watched plenty of movies and TV shows that take place on boats and heard the characters relentlessly shouting about the starboard and port sides.

These two terms are going to be the most common ones used among your ship’s crew and passengers, because they simply mean “left” and “right.”

When you are facing the front of the ship, “starboard” is the direction to your right while “port” is the direction to your left.

If you need a mnemonic device to remember which term is which, here’s an easy way to think about it: the word “starboard” has two long “r” sounds in it, which match up with the “r” sound in the word “right.”

Port vs Starboard sailing boat
Port side of the ship.

Forward, Aft, Bow, and Stern

Now that you know where you’re going when you walk from side to side on the ship, it’s time to figure out the difference between the front and back.

front bow stem ship
Front of the ship (aka: bow, stem).

The front of the ship is known as the “bow” (pronounced like the action you take when meeting an important person and not the ribbon you wear in your hair). The bow is also sometimes referred to as the “stem” of the ship.

Conversely, the rear of the ship is known as the “stern.” If you need a little help differentiating between the bow and stern, remember that when you “take a bow,” you bend your body forward. 

When you are talking about where locations are in relation to one another along the length of the ship, you would describe places that are closer to the bow as being “forward” or simply “fore.”

Things that are located in the direction of the stern, on the other hand, are described as being “aft,” “abaft,” or “astern.” While many of these terms are technically interchangeable, you will be most likely to hear the words “forward” and “aft” being used among your fellow cruisers.

Above and Below

Perhaps the easiest terms to master are those that describe locations vertically on the ship.

Decks that are located lower or higher than one another are simply described as being “above” or “below” each other.

Similarly, if someone has retreated down into the belly of the ship, they are described as being “belowdeck.”

In the Middle

While there will be plenty to do and see all around the extreme locations of the ship, you will probably spend most of your time somewhere in the middle of your vessel.

The somewhat antiquated term to describe the area in the middle of the ship is “amidships.” More often, however, you will hear this term abbreviated to simply “midship.”

onBoard Directions naming


With just these few simple terms learned, you will be much more prepared to begin your days out on the sea.

There are still plenty of other words to master before you can communicate nautically with a seasoned sailor, but the basics should be more than enough to prepare you for your first cruise.

Don’t be too stressed out if you happen to forget which way is starboard, port, forward, or aft in the heat of the moment, however. The friendly staff onboard your ship will be happy to remind you if ever you get a little confused.


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