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The term companionway refers to a staircase or ladder leading from one deck to another on a boat or ship. The strictest meaning of the term refers only to a steep ladder or staircase that descends from the deck of a ship to the cabins and corridors below. A broader usage can include any ladder or staircase on a ship that allows access from one deck to another. Companionways are highly visible and frequently-used parts of modern ships, and current designs tend to blend rugged functionality with ornamental features designed to enhance their visual appeal.
There is no absolute consensus on the etymological origin of the word companionway. Some sources argue that it derives from a French term describing both the passage leading down to a ship’s hold and the seal and latch mechanism to secure that passage. Others suggest that it derives from a Dutch term for a passage through the topmost deck of a ship. Regardless of the origins of the word, a companionway is now found on nearly every boat or ship.
A primary concern in the design of a companionway is the need to balance ease of access with the ability to secure the ladder or stairwell against rough seas or inclement weather. Working vessels tend to feature companionways that are sealed off with heavy metal hatches that are designed to be extremely durable. Smaller craft, which are primarily for pleasure, may feature doors instead of hatches at the top of their companionways. These are still generally quite sturdy but are easier to open and close and do sacrifice some measure of durability.
A market exists for upscale companionway hatches and fittings. Expensive pleasure craft may well feature elegant hardwood doors with fine glass windows as a form of companionway closure and access. This type of design masks the utilitarian nature of a companionway door and also allows more natural light into the lower deck of a pleasure craft than would filter through a small porthole in a utilitarian metal hatch.
Working ships and pleasure ships tend to differ in the design of their staircases and ladders as well. Practical, durable metal stairs or ladders that maximize the amount of space available on the vessel are favored on working ships. On pleasure craft, ranging from small personal yachts to large cruise ships, comfort is more of a priority than the optimal use of space, and on these boats, companionways usually feature staircases rather than steep ladders, although some small pleasure craft simply lack the space to include anything more than a sturdy and steep ladder to a lower deck.