According to literature, to walk the plank is to walk off a wooden plank extending from a ship in order to drown. One might be blindfolded, or have the hands bound to prevent people from swimming to safety. This was not actually a common practice during the glory days of pirates; sailors were instead punished in the 19th century through a practice called keelhauling.
Keelhauling is a severe form of corporal punishment that can result in death. In this practice, the sailor was secured to a rope that was tied to the other side of the boat. He would then be dragged underneath the ship, where he would run into barnacles attached to the ship, causing at minimum minor scratching, but most likely, severe cuts. This would be done quickly so the sailor wouldn’t drown; but sailors often did not survive the process.
The idea of “walk the plank,” seems to have originated from primarily literature sources like J.M. Barrie’s novel Peter Pan. It is likely that pirates needed no extraordinary means for executing sailors. A sword, a knife, or simply throwing someone overboard was likely to accomplish killing with less drama.
However, the idea of having to walk to one’s own death caught on and has since been deeply romanticized in films about pirates. For example in the blockbuster film Pirates of the Caribbean, Elizabeth and Captain Jack are made to walk the plank. George Lucas also featured a variant of this punishment in Return of the Jedi when Jabba the Hut forces Han Solo to walk out over a giant worm that will presumably eat his body for centuries.
Naturally, the “walk the plank” scene in the many variants of the Peter Pan story are dramatic and effective because the children must choose the punishment or become pirates. The emphasis here is that it may be better to die than to be villainous and evil for life.
There is a hazing version of walking the plank that may be observed among training sailors. Only the victim’s hands are not bound, and he or she usually walks into a safe pool. The term may also apply to party politics.
A political party may ask its members to make a sacrifice by making a possibly career ending vote. This is walking the plank because the person is forced to do something deadly, from a political standpoint. The politicians who take such an action do not do so without considerable pressure from their party. They may only do this if the vote would somehow benefit the party in ways that make sacrificing one’s career worthwhile.