Jump to content

Sea Stories: Crossing The Line


Recommended Posts

Sea Stories: Crossing The Line


One of the more ancient traditions followed by mariners for centuries is that of holding initiation ceremonies when crossing the Equator.  Called “Crossing The Line” ceremonies, these events are a throwback to centuries past, when sailors had a bit more free rein to test new hands, and coincidentally, to have a bit of fun at their expense.  These were elaborate hazing rituals, steeped in tradition.  The fact is that on a few occasions across the centuries, the festivities have gotten out of hand, and there are a few recorded instances of serious indignities, injuries and even a few deaths having occurred among the various fleets around the world.  (Since the advent of putting women on USN ships, the traditional Crossing The Line ceremonies have been significantly watered down and scaled back, lest someone be offended and complain.  In my opinion, this is not progress.)  I will describe what the experience was like at my initiation on January 10th 1985.

 A sailor who has already been initiated through a Crossing The Line ceremony is called a “Shellback.”  This professional mariner has thereby proven himself to be tough, resilient and respectful of tradition and possessed of a sense of humor.  This is a nautical being worthy of some respect.  He has been admitted into the Solemn Mysteries of the Order of Shellbacks by the personal order of His Majesty King Neptune, Ruler of the Raging Main.  Having once earned this distinction, he need never undergo this trying process of admittance ever again.  Once a Shellback, always a Shellback.

On the other hand, a sailor who has not formally been granted admission into the Realm of King Neptune is termed a “Pollywog”, or “Slimy Pollywog”, if you prefer.  This is a pitiful creature, untried, unproven, ignorant, and unworthy to walk upright among his Shellback shipmates.  He has not yet earned admittance into the maritime realm upon which he travels and works only through the forbearance of King Neptune.  He must gain this formal admission by passing through an arduous process of examination. 

I was awakened well before dawn on the day my first ship crossed the equator for the first time on our deployment to the western Pacific, at coordinates Latitude 00 degrees 00 minutes N / Longitude 105 degrees 35 minutes E (this is a point  in the Indian Ocean, southwest of Sumatra, Indonesia.)  Two Shellbacks (enlisted men assigned to my Signals Division) appeared at my stateroom door and pounded on it like sledgehammers.  I was ordered to put on my uniform clothing, but with the trousers and shirt on inside out and backwards, with underwear worn over the clothing vice under it (also inside out and backwards), and with socks worn inside out, with the trousers tucked inside them.  I was made aware of my status as a lowly Pollywog, and instructed not to address any Shellback unless spoken to, and to avoid making eye contact with so lofty a being.  I was ordered to crawl on hands and knees, as I was unworthy of walking among true seamen.  I joined over a hundred of my fellow Pollywog shipmates, all dressed in the same fashion, as we were not-too-gently herded onto the forecastle (the foredeck) of the ship, up at the pointy end.  This herding process was encouraged through the liberal application of “shillelaghs” (pronounced, “Shillaylees”) in the hands of the Shellbacks.  These are about 15” lengths of  rubber-lined cotton-jacketed 1.5-inch firehose, with one end duct taped into a rudimentary handle.  (When gently applied, these are unlikely to cause injury; sort of like a spanking from a parent who doesn’t really want to spank you.)  

On the foredeck, some well-meaning Shellback had smeared the contents of a 5 gallon can of cooking lard all over the forecastle. (I learned later that our appearance-obsessed Captain, the legendary Screamer of previous Sea Stories, just about popped an artery when he learned of this.  Significant efforts were made to degrease the ship later in the day.)  We all crawled into a tightly-packed mass in the darkness while Shellbacks played cold seawater over us through firehoses, shouting orders and critical “encouragement” for us to sing, make marine animal noises, and generally debase ourselves.  The lard made crawling to our positions on the sloping forecastle somewhat difficult, and certainly made an unusual first coat of what became an encrustation of other emollients as the day wore on.  This inspiring beginning lasted probably about an hour and was broken up as the sun rose over the calm ocean.  I remember that it rained, a lovely, tropical Indian Ocean shower, which both warmed us and rinsed us of some of the salt. 

We were then formed into line and ordered to crawl on the deck around the ship in a counterclockwise direction.  This ship was 564 feet in length, so a lap around the ship was not trivial.  Exposed steel deck was coated with a thick layer of deck gray non-skid paint.  This practically left your palms tattooed and your knees sore in short order.  The shillelagh herding process continued.  Every so often a nautical question would be asked, and if one did not know the right answer, a punishment might be levied.  I remember one shipmate being told to lie on deck, put his head though a mooring chock extended outboard, and loudly call for Flipper the Dolphin to come to his assistance.  (Flipper never came, obviously having better things to do.)  We were eventually assigned duties.  I was assigned to stand by in the galley as meals were prepared.  Bring sacks of potatoes, open cans, wash dishes, or take bags of trash to the stern.  Etc.  Others got other assignments.  The day wore on.

In the afternoon, the actual ceremonies got underway.  The ship’s bell rang ten times (the usual maximum for the most senior of officers is eight), and the arrival of King Neptune and his court was announced over the 1MC general announcing system.  King Neptune (an older Warrant Officer member of the crew) was resplendent in his imperial robes, complete with a flowing white fake beard and of course he carried his trident.  He was accompanied by Queen Amphitrite and several sirens (crew members in outlandish mermaid-esque drag) and by a cast of other costumed characters including the Royal Doctor, Royal Dentist, and Royal Baby.  He demanded to know by whose authority the embarked Pollywogs passed through his realm.  And when he learned that we were there seeking his approval, King Neptune ordered his court to assemble on the helo deck aft, and for the trials to begin.  He took his seat on a throne at the end of a line of several members of his court.  Each Pollywog in turn made his way to the line, on hands and knees, first passing through a long wood-framed plastic-lined tunnel, which had been filled with all the garbage scraps from a couple of days’ worth of galley meals, cooking oil, seawater, and who knows what else.  It reeked and was thoroughly unpleasant.  Did I mention that one had to squirm through it on one’s belly, and occasionally roll completely over in it?  Suffice it to say, when a Pollywog exited the tunnel, he was thoroughly coated in noxious effluent.  The Royal Dentist first examined his teeth, and administered some dental hygiene assistance (a squirt of a garlic and hot pepper sauce from a plastic squirt bottle.  The Royal Doctor then had a look, and pronounced the Pollywog fit for duty, but only after having administered some deep-sea medicine (a spoonful of castor oil.)  The Royal Baby was next.  This was the most obese crew member available, dressed in a diaper and with a large pacifier hanging about his neck.  His prodigious belly was smeared with some kind of grease, and each Pollywog was grabbed by the ears and had his face rubbed in the greasy mess.  Finally, each man appeared before King Neptune, and was adjudged to have been found worthy of admittance into the Solemn Mysteries of the Order of Shellbacks.  He was ordered to arise and was welcomed into the ancient company of professional mariners, now and forever pronounced a Shellback. 

When all of this was over, it was time to clean up.  Someone had thoughtfully rigged a 2.5” firehose with a 12-foot aviation firefighting applicator nozzle, forming a forceful cold seawater shower, right on the forward corner of the flight deck.  Most of us felt that the working uniform we had been wearing for the day was totally ruined, and simply stripped it off and threw it over the side, then showered naked in the bracing salt water, getting the first coat of goo washed away.  We would have a hot freshwater shower later.    Freshly cleaned and re-uniformed, we new Shellbacks resumed our shipboard duties as full-fledged maritime professionals.  Once all was done, everything was disassembled, stowed or discarded and the ship thoroughly cleaned from all traces of the event.  We had Crossed the Line.


Note:  While I saw nothing untoward happen on my Crossing The Line Initiation, it’s easy to see how things could get out of hand if not properly supervised.  I did notice that throughout my day as a Pollywog, there was always some member of my Division nearby, apparently keeping watch over me to make sure that some other Shellback shipmate did not take undue advantage of the opportunity to heap excess abuse on an officer.  I appreciated the gesture then, and remember it now with some pride, as it speaks to the regard which my men and I held each other in.  It made even more sense to me a few years later, when as a Shellback I participated in a similar ceremony aboard another ship.  That ship’s wardroom had among its members a young Ensign, a recent graduate of the US Naval Academy, who was a bit egotistical and who had unwisely made some comments indicating that he felt that officers were superior to mere enlisted men.  That guy was herded mercilessly with considerable shillelagh attention, all day long.  When he showered on deck at the end of the process, his butt was so badly bruised and reddened from the beating that the ship’s corpsman took note and had him drop by sickbay for a closer examination to make sure that he was not actually injured.  I gather that he learned a bit of humility from the experience. 





Edited by Gunboat1
  • Like 5
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Greetings fellow Shellback.  I crossed the line for the first time on November 6, 1984. My experience was similar to yours.   Beat with shillelaghs, smeared with various gross substances, beat with shillelaghs, forced fed various noxious substances, beat with shillelaghs, forced to kiss a nasty bare belly,  beat with shillelaghs, forced into a garbage filled coffin, beat with shillelaghs, placed into the stocks and pelted with garbage, beat with shillelaghs, forced to crawl through a garbage filled tube, beat with shillelaghs, and dunked into a pool filled with putrid liquid. After surfacing we were asked "What are you?"  Any answer other than "Trusty Shellback" resulted in being led back to the beginning to do it all over again. (I only went through once.) Truly a very fun day!



Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Please Donate To TBS

    Please donate to TBS.
    Your support is needed and it is greatly appreciated.
  • Create New...