Unlike left and right, “port” and “starboard” refer to fixed locations on a vessel.
Since port and starboard never change, they are unambiguous references that are independent of a mariner’s orientation, and, thus, mariners use these nautical terms instead of left and right to avoid confusion. When looking forward, toward the bow of a ship, port and starboard refer to the left and right sides, respectively.
In the early days of boating, before ships had rudders on their centerlines, boats were controlled using a steering oar. Most sailors were right-handed, so the steering oar was placed over or through the right side of the stern. Sailors began calling the right side the steering side, which soon became “starboard” by combining two Old English words: stéor (meaning “steer”) and bord (meaning “the side of a boat”).
As the size of boats grew, so did the steering oar, making it much easier to tie a boat up to a dock on the side opposite the oar. This side became known as larboard, or “the loading side.” Over time, larboard – too easily confused with starboard – was replaced with port. After all, this was the side that faced the port, allowing supplies to be ported aboard by porters.
Article and image courtesy of NOAA's National Ocean Service.