The crossing of the line is a ceremony undergone by sailors who are crossing the equator. Sailors who have not yet participated in the ceremony (Slimy Pollywogs) must do so in order to become Trusty Shellbacks. It generally entails a bunch of gross things done to the Pollywogs by the Shellbacks. And for the most part, it’s all in good fun. Plus, once you’ve done it, the next time you get to be the one dishing it out.
This is to certify that:
having been initiated in good faith whilst serving on
Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Fredericton at latitude
00 ° 00 ‘ N and longitude 000 ° 00’ W
is hereby declared a true and loyal member of the
Royal Order of the Polar Bear, to be shown due
respect by all creatures in my dominion. This so said
and decreed by myself, on this date 16 May
of the year 2006 and witnessed by my court.
Appeasing the Lord of the Waves
The history of sailing is almost as old as civilization itself. From time immemorial, man has yearned to cross the next frontier, to explore unknown lands. And, until very recently, that usually involved a trip at sea.
Sailors have always been one of the most superstitious groups of people out there, and remain so to this day. Most modern day Naval traditions are evolved from either ancient superstition, or from the harsh punishment needed to keep discipline, when all your men wanted to do was to stay with the nice people on the warm sunny isle and eat tropical fruit, rather than go back onto the dank, dirty ship and get scurvy.
In order to appease the gods, and ensure a safe journey for… almost everyone aboard, the ancient Phoenicians would sacrifice someone to appease the gods when they set to sea, as early as 700 B.C.E. The Carthaginians would likewise make sacrifices to the gods, animal in this case, whenever they passed through the Strait of Gibraltar.
This would be the first example of a ceremony held whenever a ship crossed a certain boundary. Of course, when you are passing from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, you easily see it, Europe and Africa being so close at that point. To be able to tell other boundaries required advances in our navigational prowess. Anyone versed in the history of navigation will be able to tell you that humans were able, using the positions of the heavenly bodies, to determine their latitude as early as 1514, with the use of a cross staff to measure the sun’s height above the horizon at noon, or the height of Polaris above the horizon. With the ability to measure their latitude, sailors now knew when they were crossing the equator. So, we suddenly had another excuse to be fearful, and have a ceremony.
The first modern crossing of the line ceremony was a mass held aboard a French ship in 1529. From there, things got a bit rowdier. During Portuguese ceremonies in the next century, people who had not yet crossed the line were expected to pay or bribe those who had. If they did not, they were brought before a kangaroo court, and ordered to be dunked in the sea thrice. The harshness of the ceremony eventually increased, becoming less so a measure designed to appease the gods, and more so something done to prove that you are tough enough to handle the rigours of life at sea.
Eventually, the tradition evolved to having all sailors who have not yet crossed the line, the slimy pollywogs, presented before Neptune’s Court, consisting of members of the ship’s company who have crossed the line before, the Trusty Shellbacks. Members of King Neptune’s court typically include his Queen, Amphitrite, the Royal Barber, the Royal Surgeon/Doctor, the Royal Baby, Davy Jones, a number of Tritons (acting as “guards”), and possibly a mermaid or two. Who actually plays these roles is determined amongst the Trusty Shellbacks; however tradition dictates that the role of King Neptune is played by the sailor who has the most line crossings under his or her belt.
In the past few centuries, the treatment of the Pollywogs would likely include some form of physical punishment, such as being beaten with the end of a hawser (One of the thick ropes used to secure a ship to a jetty while in port), a board, or even being tossed off the ship and dragged behind on a line. Eventually, corporal punishment became frowned upon in most countries, even within the context of Naval traditions. Following the more traditional crossing the line ceremonies in the navy of any modern western nation today would certainly lead to disciplinary action for those dishing it out, and very likely for the Commanding Officer for failing to put a stop to it.
One notorious crossing of the line ceremony, which certainly counted as hazing, occurred aboard the submarine HMAS Onslow in 1995, when one of the sailors was sexually assaulted with a long stick, after having had his anus and genitals slathered in some type of dark liquid. Video of the incident made its way to the Australian media, where needless to say, the shit hit the fan.
Good fun to be had by all!
Now a days, ceremonies are much more likely to focus upon grossing out the Slimy Pollywogs, than actually hurting them. Typical activities include getting a “shave and a haircut” from the Royal Barber, where some foul smelling goo is wiped upon the face and hair of each ‘wog, and then the Barber “shaves” it off with a wooden razor. A dose of some type of “pill” from the Royal Doctor will help cure the Pollywogs of their uncleanliness. People may be forced to crawl down some sort of a tube, filled with god knows what. Kissing of the belly of the Royal Baby, complete with lube oil, may occur. The ship’s firehose may be used to cleanse off the Pollywogs.
Ceremonies vary from navy to navy, and from ship to ship. Pretty much the only constants will be kneeling before King Neptune, and begging forgiveness for being a filthy slimy Pollywog, and the traditional dunking in the sea. And by the sea, I mean a pool (or one of the ship’s boats) filled with sea water. It is this dunking which cleanses the “filth” from the slimy Pollywog, and after that point he or she can be considered a Trusty Shellback.
After the ceremony, everyone will be issued with a certificate from King Neptune, inducting them into his service as a Trusty Shellback. As well, you will usually also get a laminated card, small enough to fit in your wallet. This shall be your proof of status, so that you don’t have to go through the entire thing on future trips. While pretty much this entire article is written from a naval perspective, it’s not unheard of for merchant ships, or even cruise ships, to have crossing the line ceremonies. Slightly modified to suit the audience, of course.
Dude, I'm telling you, I've totally done this.
When I first crossed the line, I was sailing aboard HMCS FREDERICTON. The night before the ceremony, all the Sub-Lieutenants aboard the ship formed the ship’s honour guard. Since the ship’s crest features a tiger, we all dressed up as tigers. We took bed sheets, and dyed them orange by soaking them in a tomato paste concoction, and drew the black lines upon them. Be built ourselves a tail, and made ourselves up in face paint. Each of us also constructed a wooden sword.
Of course, we got it harder than anyone else aboard the ship, since this is one of the few opportunities that the non-commissioned members will get a chance to screw around with the officers. We all formed up in one rank on the foc’sle, to prepare for inspection. Davy Jones and a few other members of Neptune’s Court showed up to inspect us. Of course, we were all deemed to be unclean, and were then “cleaned”, with a concoction that the cooks had been working up for a week. I don’t know what was in it, and I don’t want to know. All I do know is that it is the foulest substance that I have ever encountered in my entire life. I didn’t do too badly, even though Davy ensured that I got a good dose up my nose, but the guy next to me puked as soon as it touched his face. After that, we were all cleaned off by a shot from the fire hose (On the spray setting of course, not the jet), for which we were very grateful.
The next day was the ceremony for everyone. It was fairly simple. We were all crowded upon the flight deck, when Neptune’s Court arrived. They all had costumes that they had rigged together from whatever they could scrounge up aboard the ship. The King and Queen had their crowns and the Royal Regalia, the Baby had his soother, and there was the least fetching mermaid in the world.
We listened to a speech about how we were all found unworthy of service to Neptune, and would need to be made worthy to serve him.
We queued up, and in turn received a pill from the Doctor, which I believe was a maraschino cherry that had been soaking for a few days in Tabasco sauce. More foul stuff was smeared on our face and head, as “shaving cream” by the Royal Barber, although thankfully it wasn’t as disgusting as the stuff from the night before.
Then we clambered up on the dais where Neptune and Amphitrite had their thrones, and begged forgiveness for being a Slimy Pollywog. Depending upon how respectful you were, whether you “looked up the Queen’s skirt” or not, and whatever King Neptune felt like, you were sentenced to a certain number of kisses of the cod, and a certain number of dunkings. I got three each. So, you kissed the cod, and then the Tritons grabbed you, and dunked you in the pool, which was one of the ship’s Zodiacs filled with sea water. After that, you were done. Yay!
And then, later after everyone had had a chance to clean up, and everyone got put away, we had a Banyan on the flight deck, with music, BBQ, and beer. And, in case you are wondering, the Commanding Officer did go through with the ceremony, not having been a Shellback yet, as well as the Cox’n. But, the CO also insisted that every member of the ship’s company receive the certificate and card, regardless of whether or not they decided to get gooped. Avoids any accusations of hazing that way.
Depending upon which line you cross, you may become something other than a simple Trusty Shellback.
Naval Historical Center. “Crossing the Line, Plank Owner and Other Unofficial Certificates Acquired by Naval Personnel,” Naval Historical Center Main Page. 06 April 2001. <www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq92-1.htm> (14 Nov 2008.)
Madureira, Joã. “Crossing the Line Ceremony,” FOTW “Flags of the World” Web Site. 30 May 2003 <flagspot.net/flags/xf-ctl.html> (14 Nov 2008.)
Sugrue, Clare. “The Art of Crossing the Line,” CFB Esquimalt Naval & Military Museum Home Page. 2000. <www.navalandmilitarymuseum.org/resource_pages/sailor_life/crossingtheline.html> (14 Nov 2008.)
Timonier Publications. “Crossing the Line Ceremony,” The Captain’s Clerk – USS CONSTITUTION. 25 Jan 1998. <www.polkcounty.org/timonier/speaks/book14.html> (14 Nov 2008.)
Wikipedia. “Jacob’s staff,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia . 13 Nov 2008. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob's_staff> (14 Nov 2008.)
Wikipedia. “Line-crossing ceremony,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia . 02 Nov 2008. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line-crossing_ceremony> (14 Nov 2008.)
P.S. And yes, for those of you paying attention, my certificate should have read that I'm a Royal Diamond Shellback, not a member of The Royal Order of the Polar Bear. Freddy had recently been up north, and already had a template made for the Polar Bear cards. Plus, we had been diverted from something else when we were sent to Africa. They hadn't had time to make up the new cards all proper like. Oh well. Despite what the card says, I consider myself a Royal Diamond Shellback, as that's what Neptune said.