A wharf, or quay (pronounced /ˈkiː/) is a structure on the shore of a harbour where ships may dock to load and unload cargo or passengers. Such a structure includes one or more berths (mooring locations), and may also include piers, warehouses, or other facilities necessary for handling the ships.
A wharf commonly comprises a fixed platform, often on pilings. Commercial ports may have warehouses that serve as interim storage areas, since the typical objective is to unload and reload vessels as quickly as possible. Where capacity is sufficient a single wharf with a single berth constructed along the land adjacent to the water is normally used; where there is a need for more capacity multiple wharves, or perhaps a single large wharf with multiple berths, will instead be constructed, sometimes projecting into the water. A pier, raised over the water rather than within it, is commonly used for cases where the weight or volume of cargos will be low.
Smaller and more modern wharves are sometimes built on flotation devices (pontoons) to keep them at the same level to the ship even during changing tides.
In everyday parlance the term quay is common in the United Kingdom and many other Commonwealth countries, whereas the term wharf is more common in North America. In commercial/industrial usage wharf is typically avoided with quay being used to refer to the berthing areas, and port and terminal being used to refer to the overall structures and locations. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms quotes the New York Times as saying "a quay is a docking facility at which vessels lie parallel to the shoreline." In some contexts wharf and quay may be used to mean pier, berth, or jetty, though these uses are not addressed here.
The word comes from the Old English hwearf, meaning "bank" or "shore", and its plural is either wharfs, or, especially in American English, wharves; collectively a group of these is referred to as a wharfing or wharfage. "Wharfage" also refers to a fee ports impose on ships against the amount of cargo handled there.
In the northeast and east of England the term staithe or staith (from the Norse for landing stage) is also used. For example Dunston Staiths in Gateshead and Brancaster Staithe in Norfolk. Though the term staithe may be used to refer only to loading chutes or ramps used for bulk commodities like coal in loading ships and barges. It has been suggested that wharf actually is an acronym for ware-house at river front, but this is a backronym, spread around as a fact by tour guides on Thames river boats.
Another explanation may be that the word wharf comes from the Dutch word "werf" which means 'yard', an outdoor place where work is done, like a shipyard or a lumberyard.
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