Naval tradition dictates that any ship crossing the equator must pay their respects to the Lord of the Seas, King Neptune, to gain his acceptance.
The tradition may have originated with ceremonies when passing headlands, and become a “folly” sanctioned as a boost to morale, or have been created as a test for seasoned sailors to ensure their new shipmates were capable of handling long rough times at sea.
According to Atlas Obscura, “The tradition began with the Navy over 400 years ago, says anthropology and sociology professor Carie Little Hersh in her 2002 paper “Crossing the Line: Sex, Power, Justice, and the U.S. Navy at the Equator.” Given its long history, the ritual has changed over the years, but it remains a well-known—albeit sometimes controversial—linchpin of Naval culture. But line-crossing has expanded to other corners of seafaring culture, including the unlikely place of scientific research cruises. Even commercial cruise lines have been known to host some parts of the ritual.
Though ceremonies differ, there’s a general form and a common cast of characters. King Neptune is a prominent figure, as is his representative Davy Jones. Other people often show up, including a surgeon, a barber, people dressed as bears, and a judge. These roles are all played by “shellbacks”—those who have gone through the ritual before. The first-time participants are known as “pollywogs”.”
This infamous ritual is carried out very elaborately and spans 24 hours. It requires all those who had never previously crossed the line (and a few extras) to be ‘charged for their crimes’ and get the justice they deserve.
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).
As per tradition, the events begin at night. People hear a knock on their door and they know it has begun. From their ship’s berth, floating in the middle of the ocean, they are ushered into a room to begin the trial. They are being summoned into Neptune’s Court for crimes they’ve committed against the god.
At the time of this ritual, the Pollywogs are put through some physical tests to be initiated into the “ancient mysteries of the deep.” At the beginning of the ritual, they are stripped down to their underwear (or nothing) and normally, dipped in the water gathered in the save-all tray. Following the dip, raw eggs are broken onto the heads of the first timers and then they are made to drink a deadly concoction of beer, chilly sauce, raw eggs etc. The reason behind this is to give the beginners a truth serum in order that they speak the absolute truth when they swear their allegiance to King Neptune and the sea. After this, their heads are shaved unevenly and paint is applied at random all over the body.
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. Depending on the Ocean or Fleet AOR, there can be variations in the rite. Some rites have discussed a role reversal, but this is not always a normal feature, and may be dependent on whether a small number of Shellbacks exist to conduct the initiation. King Neptune goes to make an earnest speech and accepts the ushering of the sailor into the sea under the auspice of Her Majesty. Following this, the sailors are tied together and marched forward to the anchor with the sound of a drum to coordinate movement.
Once at the anchor, the newly initiated are made to crack open a can of beer on the anchor at the first go for good luck and safe seas. After this, an entire round of the ship is taken to commemorate the event and the Pollywogs are congratulated.
The “Equator Crossing Certificate” is finally handed over to the first timers after they have completed all tasks asked of them and the ceremonies are complete. The Golden Shellback, is 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, near the Null Island weather buoy. When a ship crosses 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.
Sea News Feature, January 18