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What is a Gangway?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A gangway is a platform or passage which allows people to move from one point to another. The term is most classically used in reference to the ramps which are lowered to allow people to board ships, although gangways can also appear in other contexts. For example, the boards used to span trenches on building sites are a type of gangway, and technically many passages inside a ship may be known as gangways as well.

The term “gangway” comes from the Anglo-Saxon words “gang” for “path” or “passage” and “wey” for “way.” As the etymology of this term implies, a gangway is designed to create a pathway which can be used to cross a space. People often use the term to describe a temporary pathway established for a specific purpose, rather than a pathway or passage which is always present. Generally, the term refers to a raised platform which is designed to lock into place so that people can walk across it safely.

On large ships, gangways are used to load people and cargo. People can walk up the gangway to get onto the ship, and larger gangways may be designed for vehicles, allowing cars and trucks to board so that they can offload cargo or be stowed for shipping. Gangways may be built into a ship and folded out as needed, or they may be located on shore and moved into place as required.

Gangways may also be known as “gangplanks.” As fans of pirate fiction know, a gangway does not necessarily need to connect with dry land. These raised platforms can be used, for example, to allow passengers and crew on one ship to board another ship, a tactic used in marine law enforcement as well as piracy. The gangway has also allegedly been used in a form of punishment in which a sailor is forced to walk the plank over open water, presumably drowning once he or she falls from the end.

In addition to being used to board and exit ships, gangways can also be used to create passages on docks and marinas. Flexible walkways are often extremely useful in these environments. Modern gangways tend to be made from strong, lightweight materials such as aluminum so that they can be employed quickly and easy. Older wooden gangways made from other materials can also be seen in use, along with modifications such as rails to prevent falls and provide stability for people who are unaccustomed to the use of gangways.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By anon284072 — On Aug 08, 2012

Where I grew up, the space between each house was called a gangway. The houses (usually two flats) were very close together and many had a side entrance or a back house so you walked through the gangway to get to the side entrance or back of the house. Everyone on the block in whole neighborhood had a gangway. We used to play games in the gangway and sometimes it was dark and scary. It was actually a cement walkway and I don't know where the name originally came from.

By rebelgurl28 — On Jun 28, 2011

@Janismiller – From what I have been able to find out, yes, while gangway is more commonly used when referring to ship passageways it is also used for the airport passageways. Airport gangway is a term sometimes used for the aluminum gangway ramps used at airports.

By Janismiller — On Jun 27, 2011

Pirates were the first thing I was thinking about especially since the popular film series. However, after reading the article I was wondering if the term gangway is also used for the passageways they use in the airport? They seem to be very much like the marine gangways described in this article, except, of course, for boarding an airplane and not a vessel.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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