Crossing the Equator… Rights of Passage from Pollywog to Shellback
As our fleet of Puddle Jump boats approach the equator on our Pacific passages from the Mexico (and elsewhere) to the South Pacific, much talk goes on about “celebrating” at the equator. I wondered how this tradition came to be. I knew that aboard ships in the US Navy, prior to crossing the equator, there is much planning done by the “Shellbacks” — those that have already crossed before — in preparation to indoctrinate or “cleanse” the sailors that have not crossed, i.e., the “Pollywogs.” Whenever the crossing occurs (which could be daytime or in the middle of the night), the Pollywogs are subpoenaed to the decks: “You are hereby commanded to appear before the Royal Court of the Realm of Neptune, in the District of Equatorius… because it has been brought to the attention of His Highness, Neptune Rex through his trusty Shellbacks, that this ship about to enter those waters are manned by a crew who has not acknowledged the sovereignty of the Ruler Of The Deep, and has transgressed on his domain and thereby incurred his Royal displeasure.” Then, a fully costumed and seaweed adorned “Neptune” appears before them, with sometimes “Davy Jones” at his side, indicting the Pollywogs for further charges. The Pollywogs, groveling on the deck at “Neptune’s” feet then are put through a sort of college fraternity-like hazing, with demands to eat globs of grossly concocted food combinations that the cook has made up, dousings with buckets of salt water, and other humiliating feats all in the presence of the Shellbacks on board.
Doing some research, I found that even Franklin D. Roosevelt was put through this same Rights of Passage. From the Department of the Navy Historical Center, here are some of the excerpts from the subpoena served to him:
Franklin D. Roosevelt, “You will most accept heartily and with good grace the pains and penalties of the awful torture that will be inflicted upon you to determine your fitness to be one of our Trusty Shellbacks and answer to the following charges:
Charge 1: Disregard of the traditions of the sea
…sailed the high seas and bounding main for many years, … failed to appear in person to show allegiance to his Royal Highness, thereby masquerading as a man of the sea, and by this utter disregard added insult to other previous crimes.
Charge 2: Taking liberties with the piscatorial subjects of His Majesty Neptunus Rex.
…having taken liberties with the denizens of the Realm of Neptunus Rex, by maliciously removing them from the depths of their recognized habitat, … publicized by print …and has exaggerated this crime by public humiliation of the greatest of these creatures of the sea by stuffing them full of sawdust, and placing them in a position of eternal disgrace in a national museum where the eyes of all mortals may disregard their pitiful and ignoble plight.”
… signed: Neptunus Rex
Ruler of the Raging Main
So where did this tradition begin? My research shows that this ceremony’s origin began with the French ships in the 16th century. At first the rites were performed when the ships passed around a major cape safely for the first time… but as time went on, this hazing celebration was extended to sailors who passed the equator for the first time. Even though during these days, paganism had given way to Christianity, sailors still remained a superstitious bunch and would do anything to appease the treacherous seas. Eager to please the ancient god of the sea, Neptune, the humiliation, and fines paid were a small price to pay to get Neptune’s blessing. The English eventually followed in the practice in the next century, with even Captain James Cook writing about it in his journals. In Cook’s day, the ship heaved to and the pollywogs were hoisted over the seas by the mainyard and were dunked into the ocean water 30-40 feet below them. If the pollywog was an officer of the ship, who’s dignity wouldn’t allow such a dunking, they had to forfeit pay … usually in the way of bottles of rum for the after-dunking party.
The original equator crossing ceremony was a serious event, but today, it is another excuse to celebrate how lucky we are to be sailing the seas, as well as an event to break the boredom of our long passage across the ocean. Frequently at the equator, vessels are becalmed and a bit of celebration is a welcome reprieve from the monotony of drifting under a baking sun. Nowadays, a liberal dousing with saltwater usually substitutes the dunking from the sides of the boat, and the forfeiture of pay is usually making a tithe to Neptune with a tossing into the sea of a coin from the sailor’s last port of call. Many will post a letter to King Neptune, i.e. placing a note recording the equatorial crossing position of your vessel with the names of the crew on board in a bottle, and setting it adrift. And of course, most cruising boats today substitute the after-indoctrination party’s bottles of rum with a toast of champagne… some of which is tossed into the sea for the merriment of Neptune!
If you plan far enough in advance of your crossing, you can order printed Equator Crossing (or Crossing the Line) Certificates with the engraved name of your vessel and the to-be-indoctrinated-pollywog. These elaborate official looking certificates depict Neptune and his colorful subjects of the ocean (fish, mermaids, dolphins, etc.) and have a place for the Captain to sign and the date to be filled in. I found 2 sources for these certificates:
1) U.S. Naval Institute, in Annapolis MD, phone number (410) 295-1053, website: www.history.navy.mil/faqs, or you can place your order and receive further information by e-mail from: email@example.com.
2) Tiffany Publishing Company, in Norfolk, VA, phone number (757) 622-2915, website: www.tiffanypublishing.com, or you can order and receive further information by e-mail from: firstname.lastname@example.org
As for us, well we’re still about a week away from the equator now aboard our sailing vessel, Mi Gitana. I, being the pollywog, have no idea what my husband, Joe, (who has crossed the equator many a time on Navy ships), the Shellback, has in store for my and our vessel’s rites of passage. Hopefully I will not be the sacrifice he offers to keep in the good graces of Neptune! That will be another story.
Joe looking for the mysterious "Line" for us to cross.
Michele Scott (with husband, Joe Jenners)
Aboard Sailing Vessel, Mi Gitana
48’ Hans Christian Traditional