Line-crossing Ceremony

neptunes court

The ceremony of Crossing the Line is an initiation rite in several navies that commemorates a sailor’s first crossing of the Equator. Originally, the tradition was created as a test for seasoned sailors to ensure their new shipmates were capable of handling long rough times at sea. Sailors who have already crossed the Equator are nicknamed (Trusty) Shellbacks, often referred to as Sons of Neptune; those who have not are nicknamed (Slimy) Pollywogs. Equator-crossing ceremonies, typically featuring King Neptune, 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.

The two-day event (evening and day) is a ritual of reversal in which the older and experienced enlisted crew essentially takes over the ship from the officers. Physical assaults in keeping with the spirit of the initiation are tolerated, and even the inexperienced crew is given the opportunity to take over. 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 of the fact that it will be much harder on them if they retaliate.

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, 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 wogs may be ‘interrogated’ by King Neptune and his entourage, and the use of ‘truth serum’ (hot sauce + after shave) and whole uncooked eggs.

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 (International Date Line). The rarest Shellback status is that of the Emerald Shellback, which is received after crossing the Equator at the Prime Meridian. 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 Shellbacks.

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.

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 sickbay 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.

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.

In 1995, a notorious line-crossing ceremony took place on an Australian 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 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 television coverage provoked widespread criticism, especially when the videotape showed some of the submarine’s officers watching the entire proceedings from the conning tower.

Most navies have since instituted regulations that prohibit physical attacks on sailors undergoing the line-crossing ceremony. In modern times, rather than a dreaded rite of initiation, the line crossing ceremony has become a popular tradition in the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Baptism on the line, also called equatorial baptism, is an 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.

Similar ‘fraternities’ in the navy include: The Order of the Blue Nose for sailors who have crossed the Arctic Circle. The Order of the Red Nose for sailors who have crossed the Antarctic Circle. The Order of the Golden Dragon for sailors who have crossed the International Date Line. The Order of the Ditch for sailors who have passed through the Panama Canal. The Order of the Rock for sailors who have transited the Strait of Gibraltar. The Safari to Suez for sailors who have passed through the Suez Canal. The Golden Shellback for sailors who have crossed the point where the Equator crosses the International Date Line. The Emerald Shellback or Royal Diamond Shellback for sailors who cross at 0 degrees off the coast of West Africa (where the Equator crosses the Prime Meridian) The Realm of the Czars for sailors who crossed into the Black Sea. The Order of Magellan for sailors who circumnavigated the earth. The Order of the Lakes for sailors who have sailed on all five Great Lakes. The Order of the Sparrow for sailors who have sailed on all ‘seven seas.’ North Atlantic Ocean, South Atlantic Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Southern Ocean, North Pacific Ocean, and South Pacific Ocean.

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