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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.