Port, harbour, dock, wharf, quay, pier, mole and jetty: fight!

431201_10151412050924434_2116400162_nDuring my trip to Canada I stayed in a coastal city – Vancouver – where I heard these words a lot. Being born and raised in a Brazilian inland city – Blumenau – the definition of those words were overlapping inside my head; I couldn’t understand their differences and neither could some native Canadians. When I asked them some would stop to think about it and start discussing with each other whether a specific place is a quay or harbour, for instance.

Now, after researching (i.e. googling) for a while, I’m here to share with you what I’ve found.




Port Metro Vancouver

Port /pɔrt/ (listen)

A location on a shore containing one or more harbors where ships can dock and transfer cargo/people to/from land. These locations can be huge and sometimes become the main economic activity of a city. In the premises of a port you will usually find a lot of stacked shipping containers as well as lined up cranes. It differentiates from a harbour as it involves all the warehouses, container parks and wharves, whereas harbour is only the enclosed/protected water area.


Capri harbor, Italy – by Adrian Pingstone

Capri harbor, Italy.
By Adrian Pingstone.

Harbour /ˈhɑrbər/ (listen)

Spelled “harbor” in AmE, it’s a place on the coast where ships may moor in shelter. It’s an area protected from rough water by piers, jetties, and other artificial or natural structures. Some harbours are considered natural because the “structures” that protect the coast are part of their natural topography.


Capri harbor, Italy – by Adrian Pingstone

Capri harbor, Italy.
By Adrian Pingstone

Dock /dɑk/ (listen)

It’s not easy to define it as there are differences between AmE and BrE.
In BrE, a dock is an enclosed area of water where vessels enter to load/unload goods or get some kind of maintenance done. It’s artificially made and the water inside it is typically controllable by gates which avoids tide variation. A dock in BrE can also be a dry one which is used besides for vessels maintenance for their whole construction.
When it comes to the AmE, a dock is synonymous with wharf, quay, or pier.



Sailboats located on Fisherman's Wharf in SF – by Raudel Caldera

Sailboats located on Fisherman’s Wharf in SF. By Raudel Caldera.

Wharf /(h)wɔrf/ (listen) and Quay /ki/ (listen)

I know, quay has a weird pronunciation, doesn’t it? Well, that’s English. I have to admit when I heard people pronouncing “Lonsdale ‘Key’” I though “what the heck? don’t they know how to pronounce ‘kway’?”. It turned out I was wrong, touché.
Both wharf and quay are platforms (made of concrete, stone, or metal) lying alongside or projecting into water for loading and unloading vessels. It has one or more berths where vessels can moor to it. Berths are kind of small and narrow piers, like branches of the quay/wharf. You can see a lot of them between the boats in the San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf picture. According to some people from US, quay is not a very commonly used word; in Canada though it is.


Imperial Beach Pier – by Gary White

Imperial Beach Pier.
By Gary White

Pier /pɪ(ə)r/ (listen)

A platform supported on pillars, leading out from the shore into a body of water, and used as a landing stage for boats or for fishing.
A pier can also function as a breakwater or mole. In AmE dock can be a synonymous with pier.



A mole, or jetty, in Piçarras – by Tiago Baltt

A mole, or jetty, in Piçarras.
By Tiago Baltt.

Mole /moʊl/ (listen)

A massive solid structure on a shore, usually made of stones and serving as a pier, breakwater, or both.
It can be synonymous with jetty, and it’s chiefly built to protected a coastal area, whether to create a harbour or to prevent beach sand from being dragged into the sea. Sometimes vessels are allowed to moor to it.



A small pier, or jetty, on a French lake – by Fred Fokkelman

A small pier, or jetty, on a French lake.
By Fred Fokkelman

Jetty /ˈʤɛdi/ (listen)

It can be a breakwater, that is, a construction to protect or defend a harbour, a coast, or a riverbank. In this meaning, it’s synonymous with mole. Not only that, it can also refer to a landing stage or small pier to which small vessels can dock or be moored.



Some words you might not know:

  • breakwater: a barrier built out into a body of water to protect a coast or harbor from the force of waves. Moles are primarily breakwaters and so can a jetty be.
  • craft: a boat or a ship (sailing crafts); an airplane, helicopter or spaceship (aircrafts).
  • crane: a big metal structure used (mainly in constructions and ports) to move very heavy objects. It has an attaching device, such as a hook, or magnet (used in a junkyard, for instance).
  • marina: a specially designed harbour with moorings for pleasure craft and small boats.
  • to moor: make fast or firmly attach (a vessel) to the shore or to an anchor.
  • mooring and berth: small and usually narrow piers where vessels moor to.
  • riverbank or bank: the land alongside or sloping down to a river or lake. The margins and sides of a river or lake.
  • shipyard: a place where vessels are built and repaired; it may have a dry dock (pictured in this post).
  • tide: the alternate rising and falling of the sea, it varies according to the gravitational attraction of the sun and the moon.
  • topography: the arrangement of the natural and artificial physical features of an area.
  • vessel: a ship or a boat, a sailing craft.


Note: some sources contained localized opinions of non-native English speakers. I read everything, researched about existent locations with each of the words here discussed, compared with dictionaries (American and British), and got some pictures. I think I really was able to separate each concept to make it clear for you (and for me); hopefully you agree. :)

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