Sunday 2 October 2011

What is the Difference Between a Port, Quay, Pier and Wharf?

These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are differences between each which it is useful to remember.

A Port is generally a description of a place on the coast which has facilities for boats or ships to call into, and usually a village or town attached. Normally these places developed because the natural features at that particular part of the coastline (a break in the high cliffs, an area of deepwater where the coast is rocky etc.). Because a port is a description of a type of function, ports can look very different from one another and a port may contain all of the things listed below (wharfs, quays, piers etc.). Porto Cervo, in Italy, is a good example.

A Wharf is a man-made structure on a river or by the sea, which provides an area for ships to safely dock. Some are very intricate, with multiple types of berth over a large area, and navigable channels, and others (like this one, below, from Australia) are more straightforward. A Wharf can contain quays and piers and will normally have buildings within it to service the ships (often warehouses and offices). Because of their abundance of unusual buildings and ready-made water features, unused wharfs are often converted into expensive retail and housing areas (for instance Canary Wharf and Butler's Wharf in London).

A Quay is, technically, a part of the river bank or coastline which has been modified so ships can dock at it parallel to the shore. This boat is moored at the quay in Poole, England. 

A Pier is a, normally wooden, structure which protrudes from the shore at a level above the water level, allowing ships to disembark passengers in the deeper water further out. The length of the pier may also provide berths for smaller boats.


Unknown 29 August 2013 at 07:06  

I have been in Australia for over a year and been hearing them for many times. I was just curious to find out the differences. Your explanation was elaborate and helpful. Although, I still have a little problem. Is a wharf a complex-like structure made of piers? Thank you

Unknown 29 August 2013 at 07:07  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Editor 30 August 2013 at 11:53  

Yes, it is. As per the description above it is more of a mixed area built around one or more platforms where a ship can dock.

Anonymous 31 August 2013 at 16:53  

Thank you for providing these definitions. I had been curious for many years but never thought to ask the question.

Unknown 26 May 2014 at 07:13  

thanx very much for the answers,its really great work

Gabbleratchet 14 June 2014 at 17:15  

A wharf is a structure parallel, or approximately so, to the shoreline, and usually contiguous to the shore (if not, it access bridges must be able to compensate); it is supported on piles (posts or pillars), which will have to be closely spaced. It must provide adequate moorage for vessels to berth alongside it.

A quay serves the same functions as a wharf, but it is a solid wall reaching to the bed of the water, with a platform far enough above the water to serve for lading and unlading vessels. It may therefore be regarded as a natural shoreline modified to serve that purpose.

A pier is a structure carried on piles, extending perpendicularly, or approximate so, from shore. Once it has has reached far enough, it may have branches running perpendicularly, or at some other angle, from it; it may terminate in a T, or turn and run parallel to the shore. The piles are generally widely spaced, in contrast to those of a wharf. A pier may serve for lading and unlading vessels, or for pleasure prominades (in which case it is likely to terminate in a pavilion), or to provide anglers with access to deeper water than they could reach from shore, &.

A jetty is a structure extending perpendicularly, or approximately so, from shore. Unlike a pier, it is a solid wall down to the water bed. Therefore, also unlike a pier, it obstructs the flow of currents, and this may be its chief purpose. A large jetty built to create an artificial harbor is called a "mole." A jetty intended to encourage the buildup of sand into a beach is called a "groin." Jetties in pairs often flank either side of a river as it enters the sea or lake, to prevent silting at the mouth.

Clarifying these distinctions was a gradusl process that has never been completed. The "long wharf" at Boston of old was by these definitions a pier; in many places there are piers that have always been called "jetties," and so on. The thing chiefly to be avoided is labeling any or all of them "docks." A dock is either a receptacle designed to keep the water in which a vessel is moored at a constant height, or a device to render a vessel high and dry in order to clean or repair it or the like.

Suf 29 June 2014 at 20:11  

For the oil & gas industry, a supply base supports the activities and operations performed by the offshore oil and gas industry. What category would supply base falls under?


Anonymous 14 November 2014 at 04:18  

Dear Editor,

Kindly assist me on the difference between a Quay and Jetty in a graphical form? I would like to know the similarities too.

Thank you.

Derrick Sly 5 May 2015 at 20:54  

I am so glad that someone finally laid out these differences for me. Most people (the ignorant ones) have no idea what the differences are and use the words interchangeably. To someone who makes their living on a boat, the difference is an important one.

James 7 July 2015 at 08:58  

In the early nineteenth century, jetties and breakwaters were often referred to as piers. I have come across this in my research of the Army Corps of Engineers and their work improving harbors.

Pham Thanh Hoa 11 November 2015 at 19:53  

Thank you very much for your explanation. It's very clear and I appreciate that.

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Eric Guinther 30 December 2015 at 15:39  

Yes, very helpful. Except, I believe that the term "dock" applies to anywhere adjacent to a pier or quay where a boat (ship) is "docked".

Unknown 19 February 2016 at 03:08  

So many thanks. So, Term dock is used only when it's related to repair of vessel. Like entering a cube of water and then water drained away to access areas below sea level. Once ready, its filled again and vessel floats again n then gates open to enter main water body. So it's from their that dry dock and wet dock came by .

When a vessel is locked to a pier or quay,its called berthing of vessel. Not docking. am I right?

So most lakes with private or public extensions into lake for accessing small vessels is called a pier.

Interesting that this search n landing at this place happened as I M standing at a place with both pier and quay.

Is it necesaary, pier has to be absolutely of wood. The ones we have are concrete n or steel but wooden logs are tied on sides, like cushion.

Then but whats a Marina?

A harbour lets ships dock in deep water but artificially or natural features making the water body calm and safe.

So a port is basically an infrastructure to berth ships within calm waters n undertake exchange of goods.

When the depth is less, then instead of Port, it could be a quay or jetties of fishing vessels.

So in any case a geographic feature or man made break water is what keeps the water body inside cut off from what's happening outside. 'Safe harbor' must hv orgins there.

A port or quay without some sort of breakwater will be open to storms n other elements of sea. Else it should be way inland like a river or lake connected to sea n deep enough to take ships to an infrastructure made aside an inland waterbody.

Please correct my understanding n also what is a Marina. I hv been associated with ports breakwaters lagoons n everything since childhood but still can't really explain the difference with confidence

Unknown 19 February 2016 at 03:17  



Unknown 19 February 2016 at 03:18

Caro Akerfeldt 31 May 2016 at 12:15  

Thank you!
Is it called the same if it is offshore? I mean, if it is located at an oil platform. thank you!

Prabu.G 13 August 2016 at 22:59  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown 13 September 2016 at 08:36  

Can you tell me the difference between terminal wharf and jetty..??? And one more confusion is there jatty is always used for oil or gas tanker or other cargo

Toni 3 October 2016 at 07:07  

Great info on DIFFERENCES...researching book. Very helpful, esp Dock distinction. Thx!

Unknown 7 December 2016 at 03:39  

Thanks guys for these amazing work. Your explanation were brilliant. Big Up guys

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Anonymous 13 April 2017 at 03:02  

Brilliant. The pics also made it easier to understand the differences.These terms are regularly mentioned by people engaged with shipping to the extent of Cliche but having asked & always given unconvincing vague explanations this made me beam. Thanks.

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Unknown 1 June 2018 at 20:41  

No, the proper nautical term is "moored." I know even longshoremen and vessel crew use the verb docked as you describe, but it's inaccurate. A vessel can be moored to a pier, wharf, quay,or dock, even moored to a buoy.

Anonymous 17 June 2018 at 19:21  

Very good explanation indeed. Thanks to everyone who contributed to this discussion.

Anonymous 7 February 2020 at 11:11  

I always understood "moored" to mean attached to a permanent anchor in open water (ie, a buoy), as oppose to "anchored" which uses the vessel's own equipment which is retrieved when the vessel departs.

Where I'm from "docks" and "docked" are used, generally for smaller craft. Terms like "fuel dock" are common.

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