The difference between bay and harbour illustrated with art

by | May 5, 2023 | Maritime Art, Culture and History, Media, Communications and Language

This article was updated on 5 May 2023. It was originally published on 14 July 2022.

Bay or harbour? These two terms can be a source of confusion for writers and even for some mariners. Official names help to some extent — e.g., “New York Harbor” and “Manila Bay”. But one may well ask: what is the crucial difference between the two given that ships regularly come in and out of both places?

I reproduce below the Cambridge Dictionary definitions of “bay” and “harbour” with some artworks to illustrate the distinction between the two.

BAY: a part of the coast where the land curves in so that the sea is surrounded by land on three sides

~ Cambridge Dictionary

Dawn over Bay of Algiers, 1928
Violet Oakley (American, 1874 – 1961)
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Bay of Marseille, Seen from L’Estaque, about 1885
Paul Cezanne (French, 1839–1906)
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Shimosa Province: Choshi Beach on the Outer Bay (Shimosa, Choshi no hama Toura),
from the series “Famous Places in the Sixty-odd Provinces (Rokujuyoshu meisho zue)”, 1853
Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858)
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

HARBOUR: an area of water next to the coast, often protected from the sea by a thick wall, where ships and boats can shelter

~ Cambridge Dictionary

Entrance to the Harbor, Le Havre, 1883
Eugène Boudin (French, 1824–1898)
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Harbor in Holland – Flushing (La balise – En Holland, Flessingue), c. 1894
Paul Signac (French, 1863–1935)
Coutesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

View of the Old Outer Harbor at Le Havre, 1874
Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926)
Courtesy of WikiArt: Visual Art Encyclopedia

Some afterthoughts

After giving the subject more thought, I have made a few observations which readers of Marine Café Blog may find useful.

1. The phrase “sheltered bay” refers to a bay whose whose natural characteristics provide good protection from storms, strong winds, and tidal waves. Some bays give little or no protection at all.

2. All harbours by definition provide  protection to vessels and their crews. So the phrase “sheltered harbour” is a redundancy and should never be used.

3. In some cases, a harbour is contiguous to a bay. One example is New York Harbor, which lies at the mouth of the Hudson River that empties into New York Bay. The latter is officially divided into two sections, Lower New York Bay and Upper New York Bay. 

~ Barista Uno

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