Seafaring and boating terminology can be confusing, especially when some words, such as pier and dock, are used interchangeably.
The difference between a pier and a dock can be very slight, but each does have a specific purpose and definition.
Pier vs Dock: Is There A Difference?
American and British Terminology
When it comes to American terminology, pier and dock are defined in almost exactly the same way.
Both are defined as structures or platforms that extend from a shoreline into a body of water and are used as a landing or mooring area for boats.
In British English, the two words have different definitions. A dock is an enclosed area where boats can be moored for the purposes of safekeeping, loading, and unloading, or for repairs.
Some people think of the structure as the dock, while other people think of the water adjacent to the structure as the dock.
A pier, on the other hand, is a narrow, relatively open structure that extends out into a body of water.
Although the definition using American English is the same for both pier and dock, many people still think of the two words differently.
Most Americans feel that piers are long and extend a good way out into the water. Docks, on the other hand, can be nearly any size, and they can be open or enclosed, with a branching structure.
A pier is almost always completely open and rarely branches out. Some people also define piers are running perpendicular to the shoreline, while docks can be either parallel or perpendicular to the shore.
When they picture a pier, many people also imagine a raised structure that sits above the water’s surface.
Most piers are many feet above the water.
Image: Geelong Pier at sunset
When you walk on a structure that’s considered a pier, it feels very solid, and you generally won’t feel the movement of the water underneath very much.
Docks, on the other hand, often sit right on the surface of the water, or they may only be a few inches or feet above the water’s surface.
Many docks move with the water, so standing on a dock can be a bit uncomfortable for some people.
Piers also usually have guardrails because they can be so tall and often jut out into deep water. Although some docks also have guardrails or ropes, smaller docks often lack this safety feature.
Americans also often use the word dock to describe any small manmade platform that protrudes into a body of water.
For example, some docks might be considered swimming docks and aren’t used for mooring boats at all.
Instead, they act more like a pier, providing a transitional space between the shore and the water.
Regardless of the technical definitions, many people, particularly Americans, define piers and docks by their specific purpose.
A pier is thought of as a transitional structure that bridges the space between the shore and the open body of water. Piers are generally considered places to walk and enjoy the sights.
This is supported by several popular piers around the United States that feature small store booths, spots to get food, or even carnival rides.
Image: Santa Monica Pier
In these cases, piers are thought of as more of a space for people to enjoy.
Piers are also often used for fishing. Most piers extend a long way into the body of water, so they are a good option for fishing in deeper water without the use of a boat.
Docks, however, are thought of more frequently as a place for boats. Although they are often designed as a walkway from the shore to the boat, they are not made for entertaining or enjoyment.
Instead, a dock is more like a parking area for boats. Boats are not as commonly moored along piers, although this is not always the case.
Both docks and piers usually have concrete bases and pilings that offer stability and allow water to flow underneath.
Above the water, both docks and piers are made of wood, concrete, or even special types of plastic. Some docks do not have many underwater moorings and instead simply float on the water.
Wharves, Jetties, and Quays
Wharf, jetty, and quay are other words that are often used interchangeably with pier and dock. For many people, these are all the same things, and the words have very similar definitions.
However, there are some differences. For example, wharves are more closely related to a harbor. A harbor or wharf is a relatively enclosed area that offers shelter from storms and provides calmer waters and safety for docking boats.
This also means that a dock is more closely related to a wharf than a pier is. Wharves, however, are generally made mostly of stone or concrete, while docks and piers feature more wood.
A jetty is usually defined as a small pier. It’s a structure that sticks out into a body of water and acts as a space to moor a boat, so it’s closely related to most people’s definition of a dock.
Jetties can also be defined as constructions that help to control erosion, direct water flow, or create a safe, protected space along a shoreline.
Quays are also quite similar to jetties, docks, and piers. A quay is usually made of stone or concrete. Although it can be used for docking boats, it’s usually only used for temporary stays.
The quay acts as a platform where people or goods can be loaded and unloaded. A quay can protrude into the body of water or lie along the shoreline.