The line-crossing ceremony is an initiation rite that commemorates a person's first crossing of the Equator. The tradition may have originated with ceremonies when passing headlands, and become a "folly" sanctioned as a boost to morale, or have been created as a test for seasoned sailors to ensure their new shipmates were capable of handling long rough times at sea. Equator-crossing ceremonies, typically featuring King Neptune, are common in the navy and are also sometimes carried out for passengers' entertainment on civilian ocean liners and cruise ships. They are also performed in the merchant navy and aboard sail training ships.
Throughout history, line-crossing ceremonies have sometimes become dangerous hazing rituals. Most modern navies have instituted regulations that prohibit physical attacks on sailors undergoing the line-crossing ceremony.
In 1995, a notorious line-crossing ceremony took place on the Royal Australian Navy submarine HMAS Onslow. Sailors undergoing the ceremony were physically and verbally abused before being subjected to an act called "sump on the rump", where a dark liquid was daubed over each sailor's anus and genitalia. One sailor was then sexually assaulted with a long stick before all sailors undergoing the ceremony were forced to jump overboard and tread water until permitted to climb back aboard the submarine. A videotape of the ceremony was obtained by the Nine Network and aired on Australian television. The coverage provoked widespread criticism, especially when the videotape showed some of the submarine's officers watching the entire proceedings from the conning tower.
By the eighteenth century, there were well-established line-crossing rituals in the British Royal Navy. On the voyage of HMS Endeavour to the Pacific in 1768, captained by James Cook, Joseph Banks described how the crew drew up a list of everyone on board, including cats and dogs, and interrogated them as to whether they had crossed the equator. If they had not, they must choose to give up their allowance of wine for four days, or undergo a ducking ceremony in which they were ducked three times into the ocean. According to Banks, some of those ducked were "grinning and exulting in their hardiness", but others "were almost suffocated".
Captain Robert FitzRoy of HMS Beagle suggested the practice had developed from earlier ceremonies in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian vessels passing notable headlands. He thought it was beneficial to morale. FitzRoy quoted Otto von Kotzebue's 1830 description in his 1839 Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the Years 1826 and 1836.
There is a detailed account of the ceremony on board HMS Blossom in 1825 by Petty Officer John Béchervaise in his private publication Thirty-Six Years of a Sea Faring Life (1839), available from publishers in facsimile. Blossom was just starting a three-year voyage of exploration around the Horn to the Arctic. His great-great-grandson, an Antarctic explorer, was also named John Béchervaise.
A similar ceremony took place during the second survey voyage of HMS Beagle. As they approached the equator on the evening of 16 February 1832, a pseudo-Neptune hailed the ship. Those credulous enough to run forward to see Neptune "were received with the watery honours which it is customary to bestow". The officer on watch reported a boat ahead, and Captain FitzRoy ordered "hands up, shorten sail". Using a speaking trumpet he questioned Neptune, who would visit them the next morning. About 9am the next day, the novices or "griffins" were assembled in the darkness and heat of the lower deck, then one at a time were blindfolded and led up on deck by "four of Neptunes constables", as "buckets of water were thundered all around". The first "griffin" was Charles Darwin, who noted in his diary how he "was then placed on a plank, which could be easily tilted up into a large bath of water. — They then lathered my face & mouth with pitch and paint, & scraped some of it off with a piece of roughened iron hoop. —a signal being given I was tilted head over heels into the water, where two men received me & ducked me. —at last, glad enough, I escaped. — most of the others were treated much worse, dirty mixtures being put in their mouths & rubbed on their faces. — The whole ship was a shower bath: & water was flying about in every direction: of course not one person, even the Captain, got clear of being wet through." The ship's artist, Augustus Earle, made a sketch of the scene.
The U.S. Navy has well-established line-crossing rituals. Sailors who have already crossed the Equator are nicknamed Shellbacks, Trusty Shellbacks, Honorable Shellbacks, or Sons of Neptune. Those who have not crossed are nicknamed Pollywogs, or Slimy Pollywogs.
In the 19th century and earlier, the line-crossing ceremony was quite a brutal event, often involving beating pollywogs with boards and wet ropes and sometimes throwing the victims over the side of the ship, dragging the pollywog in the surf from the stern. In more than one instance, sailors were reported to have been killed while participating in a line-crossing ceremony.
Baptism on the line, also called equatorial baptism, is an alternative initiation ritual sometimes performed as a ship crosses the Equator, involving water baptism of passengers or crew who have never crossed the Equator before. The ceremony is sometimes explained as being an initiation into the court of King Neptune.
The ritual is the subject of a painting by Matthew Benedict named The Mariner's Baptism and of a 1961 book by Henning Henningsen named Crossing the Equator: Sailor's Baptism and Other Initiation Rites.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt described his crossing-the-line ceremony aboard the "Happy Ship" USS Indianapolis with his "Jolly Companions" in a letter to his wife Eleanor Roosevelt on 26 November 1936. Later, during World War II, the frequency of the ceremony increased dramatically, especially in the United States Navy in the Pacific, where the service's fleet operations grew enormously to counter widely dispersed Japanese forces. As late as World War II, the line-crossing ceremony was still rather rough and involved activities such as the "Devil's Tongue", which was an electrified piece of metal poked into the sides of those deemed pollywogs. Beatings were often still common, usually with wet firehoses, and several World War II Navy deck logs speak of sailors visiting sick bay after crossing the line.
Efforts to curtail the line-crossing ceremony did not begin until the 1980s, when several reports of blatant hazing began to circulate regarding the line-crossing ceremony, and at least one death was attributed to abuse while crossing the line.
The two-day event (evening and day) is a ritual in which previously inducted crew members (Trusty Shellbacks), aka Seamen of the U.S. Navy, are organized into a "Court of Neptune" and induct the Slimy Pollywogs into "the mysteries of the Deep". Physical hardship, in keeping with the spirit of the initiation, is tolerated, and each Pollywog is expected to endure a standard initiation rite in order to become a Shellback. Depending on the Ocean or Fleet AOR, there can be variations in the rite. Some rites have discussed a role reversal as follows, but this is not always a normal feature, and may be dependent on whether a small number of Shellbacks exist to conduct the initiation.
The transition flows from established order to the controlled "chaos" of the Pollywog Revolt, the beginnings of re-order in the initiation rite as the fewer but experienced enlisted crew converts the Wogs through physical tests, then back to, and thereby affirming, the pre-established order of officers and enlisted.
The eve of the equatorial crossing is called Wog Day and, as with many other night-before rituals, is a mild type of reversal of the day to come. Wogs—all of the uninitiated—are allowed to capture and interrogate any shellbacks they can find (e.g., tying them up, cracking eggs or pouring aftershave lotion on their heads). The wogs are made very aware that it will be much harder on them if they do anything like this.
After crossing the line, Pollywogs receive subpoenas to appear before King Neptune and his court (usually including his first assistant Davy Jones and her Highness Amphitrite and often various dignitaries, who are all represented by the highest ranking seamen), who officiate at the ceremony, which is often preceded by a beauty contest of men dressing up as women, each department of the ship being required to introduce one contestant in swimsuit drag. Afterwards, some may be "interrogated" by King Neptune and his entourage, and the use of "truth serum" (hot sauce + after shave) and whole uncooked eggs put in the mouth. During the ceremony, the Pollywogs undergo a number of increasingly embarrassing ordeals (wearing clothing inside out and backwards; crawling on hands and knees on nonskid-coated decks; being swatted with short lengths of firehose; being locked in stocks and pillories and pelted with mushy fruit; being locked in a water coffin of salt-water and bright green sea dye (fluorescent sodium salt); crawling through chutes or large tubs of rotting garbage; kissing the Royal Baby's belly coated with axle grease, hair chopping, etc.), largely for the entertainment of the Shellbacks.
Once the ceremony is complete, a Pollywog receives a certificate declaring his new status. Another rare status is the Golden Shellback, a person who has crossed the Equator at the 180th meridian. The rarest Shellback status is that of the Emerald Shellback (US), or Royal Diamond Shellback (Commonwealth), which is received after crossing the Equator at the prime meridian, near the Null Island weather buoy. When a ship must cross the Equator reasonably close to one of these meridians, the ship's captain will typically plot a course across the Golden X so that the ship's crew can be initiated as Golden or Emerald/Royal Diamond Shellbacks.
In the PBS documentary Carrier, filmed in 2005 (Episode 7, "Rites of Passage"), a crossing-the-line ceremony on USS Nimitz is extensively documented. The ceremony is carefully orchestrated by the ship's officers, with some sailors reporting the events to be lackluster due to the removal of the rites of initiation.
As Shellback initiation is conducted by each individual ship as a morale exercise and not officially recognized by the Navy with inclusion on discharge papers, DD Form 214, or through a formally organized institution, variations of the names as well as the protocol involved in induction vary from ship to ship and service to service.
Unique Shellback designations have been given to special circumstances which include:
Variations to the Shellback designation include:
Consequently, similar "fraternities" commemorating other significant milestones in one's career include:
California Maritime Academy observed the line-crossing ceremony until 1989, after which the ceremony was deemed to be hazing and was forbidden. The 1989 crossing was fairly typical, as it was not realized to be the last one. Pollywogs participated voluntarily, though women midshipmen observed that they were under social pressure to do the ceremony but were targets of harder abuse. Pollywogs (midshipmen and anyone else who had not crossed) ascended a ladder from the Forecastle to the superstructure deck of the ship. There, they crawled down a gauntlet of shellbacks on both sides of a long, heavy canvas runner, about 10–12 meters. The shellbacks had prepared 3-foot, or 1-meter, lengths of canvas/rubber firehose, which they swung hard at the posterior of each wog. The wogs then ascended a ladder to the boatdeck to slide down a makeshift chute into the baptism of messdeck leavings in sea water in an inflated liferaft back on the superstructure deck. Wogs then returned to the forecastle, where they were hosed off by firehose and then allowed to kiss, in turn, the belly of the sea-baby, the foot of the sea-hag, and the ring of King Neptune, each personified by shellbacks.
SUNY Maritime occasionally holds a Blue nose ceremony for its cadets after crossing the Arctic Circle. Their most recent ceremony was during the summer of 2019, on the TSES VI, held shortly after departing Reykjavik. Cadets crawled through a tunnel with Lo mein, or "Eel Spawn", and then had food put in their hair before crawling through the fantail while being sprayed by fire hoses.
Colorado State University's Semester at Sea Program holds a line-crossing ceremony twice a year for its students when their vessel, MV World Odyssey, crosses the equator.
The Bellaconda "crossed the line," and there was the usual horseplay among the sailors when Father Neptune came aboard to hold court. Those who had never before been below the equator were made to undergo more or less of an initiation, being lathered and shaved, and then pushed backward into a canvas tank of water on deck.
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