Going Astern: What is the Stern of a Boat and Why Does It Matter?

Boating is appealing to many people because of its association with leisure. But there’s a lot to know about boat design, function, and terminology when you begin shopping for your vessel. Starting with, what is the stern of a boat, and why is it a crucial consideration when choosing a boat to purchase?

What is the Stern of a Boat?

The rear of a boat is the stern, while the bow is the front. Many boats have their engines at the stern, while others use that location for seating or storage. But how did the term come about, and how can you describe the other areas of the boat?

Nautical Language Origins

While it might seem simpler to reference the back of the boat as the rear instead of giving it a special name, nautical vocabulary has a long and rich history. For centuries, sailors have used their own terminology to describe everything from the way the boat leans to alerting their shipmates of danger.

Plus, if boaters used the terms “left” and “right,” it would be confusing to explain where things were happening. After all, a boat changes direction all the time, so left and right would change just as quickly. Similarly, if words sounded too alike, given the noise and wind, miscommunication could mean a life and death situation.

Other Boat Directions

While we’re discussing the stern, it makes sense to cover some other common boating terms. These terms cover the directions you’ll need to know on a boat.

Forward

If you go from the rear, or stern, of the boat to the front, you’re moving forward.

Aft

Aft is moving backward from the front, or bow of the boat.

Astern

Astern is a term referring to a boat’s moving backward (reversing).

Port

Port is the left side of the boat when you’re standing at the stern.

Starboard

Starboard is the right side of the boat while observing from the stern.

Back when boating required nothing but oars and able arms, the term “starboard” became popular because a “steering oar” controlled the vessel. Since most sailors were right handed, the steering oar was typically on the right-hand side of the boat. The evolution of the word then went from “steering side” to “starboard” as sailors combined old English words for “steer” and “the side of a boat.”

Port/Starboard Bow

Port bow is the front left of the boat (again, from a position at the stern). Starboard bow is the front right of the boat.

Port/Starboard Quarter

Port quarter indicates the left rear of the boat, while the starboard quarter is the right rear.

Amidships

If you’re amidships, you’re in the middle of the boat.

Topside

Topside refers to going above deck (on boats with multiple).

Transom

An area of the stern where the two sides of the hull meet.

What Does the Stern of the Boat Look Like?

The stern of the boat is where you’ll find the transom, but there’s more to it than a vertical area where engines attach. Here’s more on what is in the area and what your boat’s stern might look like.

Stern (& Transom) Styles

A boat’s stern has many different looks, and a transom can vary in width, angle, and overall style. Four primary types are common: flat, canoe, reverse, and raked.

Flat Transom

A flat transom looks like a semicircle from the rear and has a broad vertical face.

Canoe Transom

Canoe transoms are rounded and more aerodynamic than other types. The design helps push water away from the rear of the boat.

Reverse Transom

Reverse transoms offer an angular shape and often steps or a platform for people to disembark. Handrails and swim steps are common additions to reverse transom designs.

Raked Transom

A raked style transom is more common in racing boats because it streamlines the boat’s movement through the water. A boat with a raked stern is more likely to have a longer bow. 

Types of Boat Engines

In short, the stern usually contains the boat’s engine. There are four primary types of propulsion for boats: inboard, outboard, stern drive, and jet drive motors. Not all of them perch on the transom, however.

Inboard Engines

Inboard engines are essentially automobile engines with some adaptations for marine applications. An inboard engine is inside the hull or forward of the transom. As the engine runs, it turns a drive shaft, which operates the propeller outside the boat. Most inboard engine boats use a rudder to control the steering of the vessel.

Outboard Engines

An outboard engine attaches to the stern of a boat in an area called the transom. While the stern is the back part of the boat, the transom is the vertical area where the two sides of the hull come together. Transom mount engines attach onto the boat transom with clamps.

An outboard motor is removable, portable, and often easy to attach. The unit includes the motor and propeller, and most are four-stroke engines. You steer an outboard engine via a tiller or sometimes a steering wheel. As you turn the tiller or wheel, the propeller swivels (along with the rest of the motor) and changes the boat’s direction.

Stern Drive Engines

Stern drive engines combine the features of both inboard and outboard engines. In a stern drive model, the engine attaches through the transom and connects to a drive unit. Essentially, the engine is inside the boat and attaches via a driveshaft to the propeller. The outdrive portion swivels to move the propeller.

Jet Drive Motors

Jet drive relies on water propulsion to get watercraft moving. Jet drives direct a jet of water to provide thrust, which is then visible behind the power boat as it moves. Jet drives exist in personal watercraft and larger boats, but they’re most common in shallow-water vessels.

What to Consider When Choosing a Stern Style

What type of stern is ideal for your boat? What does the stern of the boat have to do with performance on the water? Stern style influences more than looks—here’s more on the different stern features and how to choose what will work for you.

Width (and Stability)

Though most boats employ engineering to avoid capsizing, it’s still a possibility for any sailor. That said, there are many features which help keep your boat on an even keel. Width is one of them. Wider sterns provide buoyancy and can help you tow dinghies or water sport equipment. Of course, the design of the boat influences its handling in the water, but a narrow stern may not encourage confidence.

Open Cockpits (or Not)

Because the transom enters the stern of the boat, it’s transitioning directly into the cockpit. For families who enjoy sailing together, an easy entryway is helpful. For swimming or water recreation, steps into the water are ideal. For competitive boating, however, or sport fishing, you may want another type of transom for better performance for those needs.

Additionally, if you boat on mostly flat water, an entirely open cockpit might be ideal. But if you need to navigate rough water, a more closed-off cockpit—and less inviting transom—is preferable. Boat insurance can be comprehensive, but that still doesn’t mean you want to end up using it.

Other Stern Features

Though design and appearance are essential parts of the stern’s features, it’s also an area that demands utility. On the stern of most boats, you’ll find cleats and chocks for securing sails, mooring, dock lines, and more. The hardware should be secure and immovable—and you need the right hardware for the configuration you want to have as you travel the water.

If you want to enjoy watersports, for example, you need the appropriate hardware to attach leads and equipment. Ultimately, you won’t want to purchase a boat—no matter how great its features or its price—if the stern won’t perform the functions you require. 

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