Know Your Ship Terminology

| November 28, 2003

There are some things you really need to know before heading out on a cruise. OK, "need" may be too strong a word. The cruise line's not going to give you a test before they let you onboard. And not knowing these things won't mean you'll be denied passage.

But even though there's no skill-testing, brushing up on cruise ship terminology is a good idea for all passengers. Knowing the correct words to use -- or not to use -- might save you an embarrassing moment in a conversation with fellow passengers or crew members.

To begin with, always keep in mind that you're boarding a "ship," not a "boat." In some ports, you may have to take a boat to and from the ship. In fact, most ships now carry their own boats, i.e. lifeboats and tenders. Here's what I've found to be the easiest way to remember the difference between a boat and a ship: If you think someday, in your dreams, you might be able to afford to own one, it's a boat. If not, it's a ship!

There's certainly no shortage of confusing nautical terms. "Port" comes to mind immediately -- only because it can carry so many meanings.

The ship departs from, and arrives at, a port. While you are onboard, sometimes you may find yourself on the port side of the ship. And while you're enjoying your cruise, you'll likely visit a port or two. In fact, all this may get you so confused, you'll stop by the bar and drink a glass of Port.

For the cruiser, the most important use of the term is likely to be port side, only because it specifies location on the ship. So without understanding it, you may never find the place you're supposed to sleep.

The port side is the left side of the ship, when you are facing forward (i.e., toward the pointy front end of the ship). Here's a simple rule for remembering this: Left has four letters, and port has four letters. The right side of the ship is the starboard side, but since that doesn't have the same number of letters as "right," there's no easy way to remember it.

Of course, you might have trouble figuring out which is the left side if you're not sure which way is forward. It's easy to know which is the pointy end of a ship if you're on the pier looking at it, but when you're standing out on deck, how do you know which way is toward the pointy end?

Don't worry; the cruise lines take care of us dummies. Find a stairway or bank of elevators and there will likely be a deck plan of the ship, with the pointy end clearly indicated. Failing that, if you're at sea, look out a window. The direction the ship is sailing into is the direction of the pointy end. And if that's not the case, you'd best go find your life jacket.

I just mentioned the term "deck plan." For some reason the various levels on the ship are called decks, not levels or floors. They are not decks of cards, and even if it's Christmas you aren't going the deck the halls. On some nights, however, on each deck you may find the passengers all decked out.

Some cruise lines take pity on us dummies and keep it simple, listing decks numerically -- Deck 1, Deck 2, etc. But there are others that (I'm sure just for the entertainment of the staff) give names to their decks. So you could find yourself searching for Aloha Deck, or Caribe Deck, etc. Still other cruise lines, obviously run by practical jokers, name their decks in foreign languages. I'm just waiting for some insidious cruise line executives to use hieroglyphics to identify their decks.

The pointy end of the ship I discussed earlier is in fact called the bow, and the back end of the ship is called the stern. If you want to reach the bow, you head in a forward direction. But if you want to reach the stern you don't head backwards; you head aft. Why? Just to confuse us, of course.

You know, I started writing this article thinking I could be helpful explaining nautical terminology to cruisers, but I've come to realize that if I keep this up, I may drive everyone, including myself, to drink. So I'll leave you with what is probably the single most important nautical term a cruise ship passenger needs to know. FUN!

That's a term everyone who ever boards a ship knows well before their cruise is over.

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