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U.S. Sailors and Marines participate in a line-crossing ceremony aboard "USS Blue Ridge as the ship passes the Equator May 16, 2008. It has been a long naval tradition to initiate pollywogs (sailors who have never crossed the Equator) into the Kingdom of "Neptune upon their first crossing of the Equator.

The line-crossing ceremony is an "initiation rite in various navies that commemorates a sailor's first crossing of the "Equator.[1] The tradition may have originated with ceremonies when passing headlands, and become a "folly" sanctioned as a boost to morale,[2] or have been 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 Shellbacks, Trusty Shellbacks, Honorable Shellbacks, or Sons of "Neptune. Those who have not crossed are nicknamed Pollywogs, or Slimy Pollywogs; in the Royal Canadian Navy they are nicknamed Tadpoles, or Dirty Tadpoles; an earlier nickname was griffins.[3]

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 in which previously inducted crew members (Trusty Shellbacks) aka Seamen of the U.S. Navy, who are organized into a "Court of Neptune", induct the Slimy Pollywogs into "the mysteries of the Deep".[4] 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.[4] 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).["citation needed] The wogs are made very aware that it will be much harder on them if they do anything like this.

Neptune and his entourage during a Polish line-crossing ceremony (Chrzest równikowy)

After crossing the line, Pollywogs receive subpoenas[5] 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[6] 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 (USA), or Royal Diamond Shellback (Commonwealth), which is received after crossing the Equator at the "prime meridian,[7] 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.["citation needed]

Neptune Day celebration on the Fall 2013 voyage of "Semester at Sea

Colorado State University's "Semester at Sea Program holds a line-crossing ceremony twice a year for its students when their vessel, the MV World Odyssey, crosses the equator.

Line-crossing ceremonies are also carried out on many "merchant ships.


Historical descriptions[edit]

Line-crossing ceremony aboard "Méduse on the first of July 1816.

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.[2][8]

There is a detailed account of the ceremony on board "HMS Blossom in 1825 by Petty Officer John Bechervaise in his private publication Thirty-Six Years of a Sea Faring Life (1839), available from Kessinger in facsimile. Blossom was just starting a three-year voyage of exploration around the Horn to the Arctic.[9]

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".[2] 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.[3]

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.[10] 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.[11]

"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.["citation needed] 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.["citation needed]

In 1995, a notorious line-crossing ceremony took place on a "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 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.[12][13]

Most navies have since then instituted regulations that prohibit physical attacks on sailors undergoing the line-crossing ceremony. In modern times, rather than a rite of initiation, the line-crossing ceremony has become a popular tradition in the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard. In the "PBS documentary "Carrier filmed in 2005 (Episode 7, "Rites of Passage"), a crossing-the-line ceremony on the "USS Nimitz was 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.


"USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) "Whipping Time". Steaming to Rio de Janeiro on 26 February 1971.
"USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) "Snack time." Steaming from Singapore on 29 August 1973.

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 "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.["citation needed]

Equatorial baptism[edit]

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.[14] 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.[15]

Honors for line crossings and other navigational events[edit]

Shellback certificate awarded to Charles Cameron, aboard USS Utah (BB-31), commemorating his first crossing of the Equator, December 1, 1928. This is typical of certificates awarded in the pre-WWII period.

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.[16]

Unique Shellback designations have been given to special circumstances such as when the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt ("CVA-42) crossed the line on 4 July 1966, its crew became known as Star Spangled Shellbacks. It is not known if this designation has ever been used before or again as no other mention of such honor has to date been located.

Variations to the Shellback designation include:

"Imperial Domain of Golden Dragon" card given to Graham S. Fulghum aboard the "USS Manatee (AO-58), marking his first crossing of the International Date Line, 11 June 1944.

Consequently, similar "fraternities" commemorating other significant milestones in one's career include[17]:

Shellback certificate for Bob Fay aboard "USS Diphda (AKA-59) for crossing the Equator in the Pacific at the end of World War II, August 1945.
"USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) CTL. Wog summons. Steaming to Rio de Janeiro on 26 February 1971.
"USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) CTL. Wog charges. Steaming to Rio de Janeiro on 26 February 1971.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Eyers, Jonathan (2011). Don't Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions. A&C Black, London, UK. "ISBN "978-1-4081-3131-2.
  2. ^ a b c "Robert FitzRoy (1839) Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, London: Henry Colburn. pp. 57–58.
  3. ^ a b Keynes, R. D. ed. (2001) Charles Darwin's Beagle diary, Cambridge University Press, pp. 36–38.
  4. ^ a b Richardson, Keith P. (1 April 1977). "Western Folklore". 36 (2): 154–159. 
  5. ^ "Ceremonial Certificates - Neptune Subpoena". Usni.org. Retrieved 2013-11-18. 
  6. ^ Ceremonial Certificates - Golden Shellback Certificate - Personalized
  7. ^ "Commemorative Certificates". History.navy.mil. Retrieved 18 November 2013. 
  8. ^ "Otto von Kotzebue (1830) A New Voyage Round the World, Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, London: "Project Gutenberg eBook.
  9. ^ "Thirty-six Years of Seafaring Life, digitized by Google". Books.google.com. Retrieved 2013-11-18. 
  10. ^ "Cook, Blanche (1999). Eleanor Roosevelt, vol. 2 (1933-1938). New York: Penguin. p. 398. "ISBN "978-0140178944. 
  11. ^ By the end of WW II, the United States Navy had added nearly 1,200 major combatant vessels to its combined fleet. This amounted to over 70% of the world's total number of military ships measuring 1,000 tons or greater. King, Ernest J., USN. "Major Combatant Ships Added to United States Fleet, 7 December 1941 - 1 October 1945", ibiblio.org. US Navy at War 1941-1945: Official Report to the Secretary of the Navy. Retrieved June 7, 2017.
  12. ^ The Australian Association of Maritime History newsletter, September 1999 Archived July 10, 2005, at the "Wayback Machine.
  13. ^ "Navy submarine hot bunking". Milism.net. 1993-06-22. Retrieved 2013-11-18. 
  14. ^ Appleton, Victor (1916). "IX. The Bomb". "Tom Swift and His Big Tunnel. 19. Grosset & Dunlap. 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. 
  15. ^ Matthew Benedict - Crossing the Line Archived February 11, 2006, at the "Wayback Machine.
  16. ^ Silvey, Frank. "The Certified Sailor". Naval History and Heritage Command. US Navy. Retrieved 3 July 2017. 
  17. ^ Director of Naval History. "List of Unofficial U.S. Navy Certificates". Naval History and Heritage Command. US Navy. Retrieved 3 July 2017. 
  18. ^ http://www.shortsnorter.org/Harry_Revers_Short_Snorter.html

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