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What is the Stern of a Boat?

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on January 15, 2023. In Boats

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The stern of the boat refers to the aft-most part of the boat. Properly this includes the entire rear section that is built up over the sternpost which is the upright structural portion of the boat, what you might call the rear wall of the hull, onto which the transom is attached.. This includes the area that extends upwards from the counter rail to the taffrail which are the safety rails you’ll see surrounding the deck towards the rear of the boat.

Where is the Stern on a Boat?

Boat Name On A Transom

The stern is located opposite the bow of the boat. To most casual observers the stern is the back or rear of the boat, but using the correct terminology is always preferred. The “back” of the boat may not mean much to someone who has never been on a boat before and isn’t sure what you mean. It seems like second nature to most boaters but imagine if someone with no experience were to get on a small fishing boat, maybe a little jon boat, and the operator is sitting at the outboard steering the boat. Would it be unreasonable for that person to think the stern was actually the front in this case, since that’s where the boat is being operated from?

Between the stern and the bow is the midship, but the details of exactly where the stern ends and the midship begins can be a little fuzzy for some people. Again, this is a language use issue. Technically speaking the stern is only that final, rear portion of the ship, the back wall you might call it. But someone can just as easily say the stern area or stern portion of the boat and mean a considerable length of space that’s just near the stern of the vessel. For instance, there may be stern cabins in a yacht or cruise ship that are obviously not right in the rear hull itself, just the rear or stern portion of the vessel. In that sense, stern is more of a general or colloquial term that allows you to differentiate it from the front or bow of the ship. 

In terms of light, the stern is easy to locate thanks to the white stern light that separates it from the port and starboard lights which are red and green. Stern lights are required if you’re operating in poor visibility and the white color allows another boater to know they’re approaching your stern.

Why is it Called the Stern?

Boating terminology is very old so there’s a lot of history behind the words used and they don’t always seem to make sense to people unfamiliar with the terms. On board directions and locations seem to be hardest for new boaters to get the hang of. Why it’s called port and starboard instead of left side and right side, for instance. And why we use bow and stern instead of front and back. The reasons for bow and stern are basically the same as the reasons for port and starboard. Because the front and back of the boat may change from your perspective if you’re facing a different direction than the person telling you to do something at the front or back. Bow and stern make those locations set in stone regardless of where you’re positioned on the boat, so there doesn’t need to be any confusion.

As to why we use the word stern in specific, thank our nautical ancestors the Vikings. It’s believed we adapted the word stern from a Norse word “styra” meaning “to steer.” Makes sense in that context, right? Boats are often steered from the stern, or at least many used to be. But even if boat design changed, the language didn’t have to. 

Styra changed to “stjorn” which means “steering.” And that became “styrne” in Old English which then became stern.

What is the Difference Between Stern and Aft?

In casual boating conversation you may hear people refer to the stern and the aft in the same breath. Both seem to indicate the rear portion of the boat so it can be confusing if you’re new to the terminology to try to figure out where there seem to be two very different words for the same thing.

Some people will use the terms interchangeably, especially if they mean it like a direction. If you hear someone say “take this box to the stern” they may just as easily say “take this box aft” and mean they want you to take it to the same place which is just the rear of the vessel. But, strictly speaking, stern and aft are not the exact same thing at all.

The stern generally refers to the place, as in the physical back of the boat. Aft typically means the direction towards the rear of the boat. It comes from an old English word that means “behind.” So you could reasonably say you are heading aft towards the stern. 

Stern also refers specifically to the very rear of the boat, in this case offboard or outside of the vessel. So if the name of the boat is painted on the back, it’s painted right on the stern. Your outboard motor hangs down over the stern. 

The aft refers to the inboard rear of the boat, or inside. So if there’s a seat at the rear that’s an aft seat. It’s still inside the boat so it’s not quite the stern just yet. The difference is literally the thickness of the hull from inside to out. 

You can think of it like the difference between a ceiling and a roof. When you’re inside and looking up, that’s your ceiling. When you’re outside and looking at the top of your house, that’s the roof. It’s just which side of the fence you’re on, so to speak.

Stern is the outside rear of the boat, aft is the inside rear of the boat. 

What is the Major Danger of Anchoring a Fishing Boat from the Stern?

Anchoring your boat from the stern is never recommended except in very specific circumstances. This is somewhat ironic in that many of us probably grew up remembering cartoons or other fictional depictions of boats where someone would always toss an anchor off the back of the boat. It seems to make intuitive sense that you would anchor the boat there, but that’s not the case. 

The biggest danger from anchoring at the stern is that you may end up swamping the boat. This is because the stern of your boat is squared off and flat and already heavy. Your motor is already back there adding considerable weight to the boat. That means that if an anchor is pulling it down and the seas were to get rough or a swell came up, the stern would be pulled down and allow water to come up over it and fill the boat. 

Another problem here is that your anchor rode, if it’s tossed out to stern, has the potential to get tangled in your prop or rudder. That can cause serious damage that could slow down or even incapacitate your boat. It’s a bad and dangerous idea.

The ideal way to anchor any boat is to face the wind and you’re not doing that when you’re anchored from the stern. The stern should be facing the opposite way of the wind to maximize safety and reduce that flood risk. The bow on most boats is shaped in a way that allows it to cut through waves, thus making it the much safer and smarter option for anchoring. 

There are rare cases when you might use a stern anchor but that would be in addition to your main anchor which is set off the bow. You can benefit from a stern anchor if you’re anchoring in close quarters to other vessels or in a narrow channel and you want to limit drifting as much as possible. But that’s about it. 

Transom Stern vs Elliptical Stern vs Cruiser Stern

The stern of a boat can be designed with a number of shapes though they all mostly serve the same purpose. Square sterns or transom sterns are the most common that you’re likely to see on many modern boats, but they are by no means the only type. You will see round and elliptical sterns from time to time as well. Something like cruiser sterns have an upward curved profile from the aft perpendicular to the main deck. Such a stern wouldn’t be seen on most common fishing boats, but may be found on larger vessels like cargo ships.

Elliptical sterns or a merchant stern are old and had a u-shaped frame to give them the shape. Round sterns were developed later and that was mostly to maximize the space to mount things like cannons on the gunwale. 

You can find other stern styles as well that are slightly tweaked versions of the main three. These include things like:

  • Raked stern
  • Bustle stern
  • Counter stern
  • Transom flat stern
  • Canoe stern
  • Reverse stern
  • Lute stern
  • Sugar scoop

What Does the Stern Do?

Regardless of what else may have been back there – guns or outboard motors for instance – the stern’s purpose can be found in the original name. It was where you steered the boat from. The person steering would stand to the starboard side of the tiller and control the direction of the boat from there. The tiller was mounted to the stern to allow the boat to be steered by simply moving it left or right as needed to change direction. 

As boats got more complex the steering controls moved and boats had wheels and other controls that were located closer to the center and the boat, but the tiller or rudder always has to be at the stern of the boat because that’s what allows it to maneuver through the water. 

In addition, and more basically, the stern is necessary for structural support on the boat. It’s an integral part of the hull and maintains the shape and therefore hydrodynamics of any boat. An improperly formed stern can make a boat slower and more difficult to maneuver. A poorly designed stern can cause a disruptive wake that limits how fast you can go and also makes the boat travel more roughly on the water. 

The Bottom Line

To most people the stern of the boat is just the back or rear of the boat. The proper terminology ensures you never mistake what rear or back means, however, since that can change based on the perspective of the person hearing it.

Originally, stern came from a word meaning “steer” and that was the purpose of the stern of a boat as well. It was the place from which the boat was steered and controlled because that was where you could operate the tiller. As boats evolved, steering controls were able to move up and can now be located almost anywhere on the both. But the rudder is still going to be located at the stern, even if there’s no tiller attached and we can no longer see it back there. 

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.

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