Why do North American boat manufacturers place the steering controls on the starboard side?

By Allan BritnellAllan Britnell

The Question

Why do North American boat manufacturers usually place the steering controls on the starboard side instead of where we're used to them (on the left) in our cars?

–Brian Beedham, Richmond Hill, Ont.

The Answer

It depends on who you ask. The speculations range from “I think it has to do with the fact that most people are right-handed and the throttle is easy to get at,” to “commercial shipping was taken to a higher level by the British, and where do they put their controls on cars?” But the most authoritative voices break into two camps: the right-of-wayists and the propeller-torquians.

First, the right-of-way theory: “It has to do with keeping a proper lookout,” says Burlington, Ont. based boating consultant Michael Vollmer. “The right-of-way rules require you to keep watch in your starboard forward quarter – from the bow to slightly aft of the beam. So if you’re on the right side of the boat you have a better view of who you have to watch out for.” Elbert Maloney, long-time editor of the boating bible Chapman Piloting, agrees that “the controls for a boat are put on the right side so can you have the best visibility.”

But then there’s the issue of propeller torque. Steve Killing, a yacht designer in Midlan, Ont., explains: “As a standard right-hand prop turns, it tends to put the port side down. There’s a fair bit of resistance to the prop turning in the water. The left side of the boat tends to get physically pushed down [in the water] by 2˚ or 3˚. If the driver’s on the right-hand side of the boat his weight tends to balance that and make it level.”

In the end, the answer is one of convention; people, including boat builders, are used to seeing steering controls on the right, so builders put them on the right.

1 comment

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Marty B

Sep. 26, 2013

12:01 pm

This practice actually predates British cars by more than a millennium. Had has nothing to do with the automotive industry. The origin of the term starboard comes from early boating. Before ships had rudders in the center of the boat they were steered with a special oar held by an oarsman located in the back of the boat. At the time there were more right-handed sailors than left-handed sailors. So the "steering oar" was affixed to the right side of the boat. Starboard is from the Old English word "steorbord" which literally means the side on which the boat is steered.

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