The difference between bay and harbour illustrated with art

by | Jul 14, 2022 | Maritime Art, Culture and History, Media, Communications and Language

Bay or harbour? Which of these two terms to use can sometimes pose a dilemma. Official names help to some extent — e.g., “New York Harbor” and “Manila Bay”. But one may well ask: what is the difference between the two given that ships regularly come in and out of both places?

The Oxford Dictionary of English provides definitions for “bay” and “harbour” that seem fairly clear. I have quoted them below together with some works of art which I think will amplify the meaning of each term.

BAY: A broad inlet of the sea where the land curves inwards.

Oxford Dictionary of English

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: A place on the coast where ships may moor in shelter, especially one protected from rough water by piers, jetties, and other artificial structures.

Oxford Dictionary of English

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


After mulling over the subject, I have arrived at some conclusions of my own:

1. The phrase “sheltered bay” refers to a bay whose whose natural characteristics provide good protection from storms, strong winds and tidal waves. It does not apply to all bays, since some give less protection than others.

2. All harbours by definition provide some kind of protection for ships and boats. So one never speaks of a “sheltered harbour” as that would be redundant.

3. A harbour might comprise only a certain part of a large bay. In which case, it could be designated as the “harbour” where ships can moor or seek shelter as opposed to the greater bay area.

4. For all their protective infrastructure, harbours can be devasted by hurricanes and tsunamis. To borrow from the famous saying: Hell hath no fury like Mother Nature scorned.


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