A gangplank is a walkway extending from a ship or seagoing vessel to a dock. Typically removable, gangplanks allow easy transfer of passengers and goods both on and off the ship. Though traditionally made of wood, gangplanks are now commonly made from durable material, such as metal, that can stand up to rough weather and ample use. A gangplank can be as simple as a flat board that can be balanced between the ship’s deck and a dock, but many have additional features that increase safety and maneuverability.
Possibly the best known use of a gangplank dates back to pirate legends, where prisoners and captains on the wrong side of mutiny were forced to “walk the plank.” In this case, the walkway would be extended straight out over open water, forcing prisoners to fall into the ocean and suffer a variety of unpleasant deaths. Prisoners would be tied up or chained in order to drown, or occasionally dropped into shark-filled waters for an even more gruesome end. Some historians speculate that walking the plank is a myth to increase the bloodthirsty reputation of pirates, yet recorded instances of the term date back to dictionaries of the 18th century.
Modern gangplanks often exist to help, rather than kill, any boarders. Many are outfitted with handrails that facilitate passengers who have not yet found their sea legs. Passenger boats, such as whale watching tours, cruise ships, or sport fishing boats, often feature wide and sturdy gangplanks that can easily accommodate less mobile passengers. Depending on local laws and maritime policies, some may even be able to accommodate wheelchairs.
When boarding a ship, wait until permission is granted to cross from the dock to the boat on the gangplank. Passenger boats will usually have personnel on hand to advise passengers and help them if necessary. In choppy waters, when both the gangplank and the ship may rise and fall at different rates, hanging on to the handrails is advised to avoid an inadvertent dunking.
Because gangplanks are considered to be temporary equipment, portability and flexibility are important details. In simple boats, a gangplank may be a thin and flat plank of wood that can be easily be stowed out of the way on deck. Some are built into the fittings of the ship, and can be pulled up from a slot and extended toward the dock when needed. As efficient use of space is an important part of sailing and boating, a gangplank that can be completely stowed away can be quite useful when space is a premium concern.