What is a Quay?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A quay is a platform to which ships are docked for loading and unloading. A traditional quay runs parallel to the shore, and is sometimes simply made by carving into and reinforcing the shore, creating a sort of natural docking point. In contrast, a wharf runs perpendicular to the shore, creating the potential for much more docking and unloading space; most major harbors today use wharves, with quays appearing in smaller, private harbors.

Ships are docked at quays for easy access.
Ships are docked at quays for easy access.

Quays can be built from a number of materials. In ancient times, they were built right into the banks of a river or bay, and heavily reinforced with stone. A modern quay may be built from stone, concrete, wood, or metal, with post and pier construction being common, as it is much cheaper than solid construction. A quay may be very small, or long enough to accommodate several ships, and warehouses are often situated conveniently nearby.

Historically, a quay would have been a place of high activity, bordered by warehouses, shipping offices, and the homes of some prominent harbor officials and crewmembers. The surrounding environment might have been a bit unsavory, thanks to facilities established to cater to the needs of sailors, and in fact the areas around many docks and shipyards continue to be a bit infamous for their often blighted and dulled appearance. In the modern era, where communication methods are more varied, it is not longer necessary to live close to the docks to run a shipping business, and as a result dockyards have been largely taken over by warehouse space.

If you're puzzling over how to pronounce this word, the correct pronunciation is “key,” and the word is in fact a variant spelling on “key,” a Middle English word which dates to the early 1300s in the sense of a docking place. To add to the general confusion, the word “key” is also used to refer to small islands such as those found in abundance in the Caribbean, perhaps because such islands represented convenient docking places for boats and ships in the age of exploration.

Access to a quay is typically limited to reduce confusion and the risk of injury. Dockhands and other shipyard workers may be present on a quay, along with the crews of ships arriving or departing at the quay. If passengers are being accepted on a ship docked at a quay, they may be isolated to a specific area to ensure that they are not lost or hurt, as a busy quay can be a confusing and intimidating place for people unfamiliar with the environment.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I've seen plenty of wharves, but I don't believe I've ever seen a quay. I go vacationing on the Gulf coast every year, and many locations have wharves for boats.

They are made of stacks of boulders that jut out into the water dozens of feet. I've seen people fishing off of them, but to me, they look unsafe.

The rocks are wet from the spray, and they are so slippery. Also, they look a little unstable. They could wobble and you could fall into the ocean!


I had to meet someone at a quay once, and I felt very vulnerable walking around there alone. It seemed mostly deserted, and if anyone had attacked me, I don't know if screaming would have done any good.

I kept my eyes wide open and stayed as close to the water as possible. I felt that I was less likely to get grabbed there than in the alleyways between warehouses.


@cloudel – I've been to Circular Quay in Sydney. You are right. It is a total tourist destination.

While they did have lots of places to shop and eat, they also had places for ferries to dock. I got to go on a ferry ride, and I think that was the highlight of my experience.

It was nice to get away from the crowd and the noise and just take a look at the water. From a distance, I could see that the quay was dotted with people, but I felt safely removed from them.


Nowadays, quays are tourist destinations. My cousin went to Quay West in Sydney, and there were multiple hotels and restaurants in the area. There was even a mall!

In the photos of her vacation, I did see a lot of ships docked along the shore. I really didn't see any sand, though. I guess that the quay was made of concrete.

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