To work their cargoes safely and efficiently, ships need to be alongside a sheltered wharf onto which they can discharge their cargoes or from which they can load their cargoes. Therefore, if a lot of cargo will be moved and a lot of ships will call to load or discharge cargo, a harbour needs to be developed.


Part of Port Elizabeth harbour. The ship in the photograph is loading manganese.

Some definitions :

  • Harbour : A place built to shelter ships, especially while they work their cargoes.
  • Dock : An area of water that is partly enclosed, usually by concrete, where ships can work their cargo.
  • Terminal : An area of the harbour where specialised cargoes are handled (e.g. container terminal where containers are handled; multi-purpose terminal where a variety of cargoes are handled; oil terminal where oil is discharged or loaded; coal terminal where coal is handled; iron ore terminal where iron ore is loaded.)
  • Wharf : A platform (usually made out of concrete) to which a ship is moored to discharge or load cargo. (Wharf and Quay mean the same thing.)
  • Berth : A place in a harbour where ships can come alongside to work their cargo, and/or to refuel.
  • To berth : The process of a ship coming alongside a berth in a harbour.
  • Breakwater : A structure built out of concrete or rock and designed to prevent heavy swell from damaging a harbour.
  • Jetty : A structure built out into the sea (or into a bay or river) where vessels can berth. (Jetty and Pier mean the same thing.)



The iron ore jetty at Saldanha Bay. Berthed alongside the jetty to load iron ore is a Capesize ore carrier. Photograph: Andrew Ingpen



This ship is berthed alongside a wharf to load cargo. In the background is a cargo shed that is specially fitted with refrigeration spaces to store frozen meat and fish.

Harbours cost a lot of money to build, and before a harbour is built, much research is necessary to check that it will be worth all that money to build the harbour. In their research, harbour planners and engineers need to consider a number of factors so that they can be sure that the harbour construction project will be successful, and that the harbour itself will be useful for a long time. Physical factors also need to be considered.