Why Are Boat Steering Wheels on the Right?
You may be surprised to learn that there is actual debate over the answer to this question. Even among boating experts and even boat designers you can find answers that are either in conflict or complementary to each other while still being notably different. With that in mind, here are some of the most plausible reasons for why your fishing boat or sailboat may have steering wheels on the right, as well as a few myths we can bust along the way.
The Boat’s Steering Wheel is on the Right for Right Handed People
This one seems pretty self explanatory and obvious. The majority of people in the world and therefore the majority of boat operators are right handed. Putting the steering wheel on the right with the throttle right at hand makes it easier and more convenient to operate. This is a reasonable assumption and, in fact, a number of people in the boating world give it a lot of credence. All things being equal, it’s an easy way to control a boat. This is by no means “the” reason boat steering wheels are on the right. But, that said, it could be a contributing reason as to why they have been designed that way for so long.
The Boat’s Steering Wheel is on the Right to Keep Better Watch
Another popular idea about why boats have steering on the right deals with some official rules on boating. According to the COLREGS, that is the official rules about avoiding collision at sea, all boats are to keep to the right of oncoming traffic. That involves keeping watch to starboard for nearby boats and it’s believed that having the wheel on the right side of the boat allows you to more easily see oncoming boats that may be approaching or crossing your path.
Basically, you need to be focused on the starboard forward quarter and that is most easily observed if you’re located there. Of course, there is some debate about whether this is even true of small boats, where you may be better able to see if you’re located to the left, but again this is mostly speculation. It’s supported by a number of people, including some people who design boats, but it is not a definitive answer.
Additionally, having the steering to one side allows the pilot to better see the motor when they’re operating the vehicle. If there’s an issue, it’s much easier to glance over your shoulder and loom behind you if you are located to the side of the boat. If the steering was in the center, for instance, you would have to turn completely around if there was something that needed your attention back there.
The Boat’s Steering Wheel is on the Right Because of the Boat Propellers
Some boat manufacturers will point out a more practical reason for steering being on the right side of the boat and that deals with how propellers work. If you have a standard right hand prop, and most recreational boats do, then it will actually cause the port side of the boat to go down slightly because the propellers spin clockwise. From what I’ve read, this can be anywhere from 2 degrees to 3 degrees which may not be substantial but could definitely take its toll on overall efficiency of a vessel over time, and increase chances for some kind of accident in poor conditions as a result.
Because there’s resistance on the prop, having the steering and therefore the pilot on the right side of the boat can offer balance and stabilize the slight imbalance created by the rotation of the props.
This is a unique explanation for a couple of reasons. The first is that it makes sense which shouldn’t be unique but consider the second part here and that is the fact steering far predates propellers. So it’s only a coincidence that steering on the right would benefit the overall balance of the boat and can’t really be intentional. More of a happy accident than anything else.
You could argue this is a reason some manufacturers continue to place the steering on the right, or a contributing factor, but it certainly can’t be the original reason.
The Boat’s Steering Wheel is on the Right Because of Tradition
One of the most obvious reasons, at least to some people, is that we have a tradition of operating on the right side. This also folds the idea of right handed operators into the mix, at least to some degree. But boats have been manufactured with the steering on the right for so long, we just continue to do it even if modern advances in technology make it no longer necessary to do so.
Support for this idea comes in a couple of forms. To start, and to branch off of the right handed operator idea, once upon a time boats had a steering oar. Steering oars, located at a boat’s stern, were operated by a single person while others used oars to propel the boat. The steering oar worked like a rudder and was often mounted to the right because the oarsman would likely be right handed more often than not. So steering from the right was a tradition that predated even modern rudders, let alone motors.
This leads into an interesting fact about boat terminology. You call the right side of the boat the starboard side. The etymology of that word is a combination of two old English words “steor” and “bord” which meant “steer” and “side of the boat.” The starboard side was the side of the boat you steer from, even back before modern English was a language.
You may have heard of the left or port side of the boat called larboard sometimes. In period films you might hear the captain yell out something like “hard a lardboard” when they need to turn to port right away. Larboard meant “loading side” because that was the side of the boat that you docked, since the other side was the steering side. Larboard evolved to port because it was the side facing port when the boat docked, again because the starboard or steering side faced away.
These reasons give a lot of weight to the reason for steering being on the right simply being a matter of tradition. Boats have been made this way for generations.
Myths About Why The Steering Wheel is on the Right
The above reasons are all either plausible or legitimate considerations for why boat steering is on the right. But the fact is there’s no real rule or necessary reason for boats to be made that way. In fact, you can find boats right now that have steering on the left, ostensibly as an effort to make it feel more familiar to people used to driving North American cars.
With that in mind, there are some reasons you might see or hear from others about why steering is on the right that are just not true. Let’s take a minute and debunk some of those.
The Boat’s Steering Wheel is on the Right Because of the British
This is the most popular theory about why boat steering is on the right. Because the British dominated the seas with their navy and also commercials for many years as they expanded across the globe, they were one of the biggest forces in naval and boating history. British cars are operated from the right side so boats are operated from the right side because of British influence.
This has a few problems with it. If you consider what we said above, the tradition of boating from the right far outweighs even the English language let alone the British navy or their history of trading at sea. And steering from the right was pretty consistent across many sea-faring peoples, not just the Brits. Again, it was predominantly a matter of people being right handed, it seems.
Additionally, even if it was the case that British influence had something to do with steering wheel placement, then the vast majority of North American boat makers, and international boat makers, wouldn’t have any reason to continue that tradition if it was solely based on that and nothing else. The fact that old British vessels were steered from the right is incidental – all boats were steered that way.
If anything, British cars are steered from the right because boats were, not the other way around.
The Bottom Line
There is not really a single reason why a boat steering wheel is on the right of the boat. Conventional wisdom dealing with passing on the right and having a good lookout for boat safety are solid reasons but it’s worth remembering that boats steering from the right predates both of them. Likewise, the fact that the torque from a prop can unbalance modern boats to port and the steering on the right balances it out is a nice side effect of the steering being there but not the original reason.
Given the origins of the term starboard and how steering was originally done from the right, it seems like all of the reasons work together to explain why, in most boats, steering continues to remain on the road. It’s tradition, but it may also have practical and safety benefits as well. But we can say with a fair degree of certainty it has nothing to do with the British secretly designing boats this way. Some newer pleasure crafts and power boats are offering left side steering, and this may become more common in the future.