Shellbacks and Polliwogs - History of Equator Crossing Rituals

**sailors and rites of passage crossing the Equator, from the 15th to the 20th century**

Interesting paper about equator crossing rituals.

In meteorological science we can find explanations for the doldrums in this zone due to the pattern of atmospheric circulation, though it is perhaps not necessary to digest the entire complexity of scientific explanation. Fifteenth and sixteenth century sailors did not know all of the details of this, however, what mattered was that due to the wind system, doldrums were created around the equator which made the crossing of the line one of the rare moments of relaxation on board a sailing ship. On the equator, the doldrums were more frequent than elsewhere. Even causing trouble and fear, “the doldrums caused a reduction in the rate of work which could be filled with a rare possibility of an onboard party” (Rodrigues, 2005, p.214-215).

Aside for the lack of wind in the doldrums for Europeans crossing the equator meant losing sight of the North Star.

Do merchant sailors even do this ritual now a days? The USN & USCG still do it but I think it’s watered down quite a bit. Afraid of demeaning or insulting anyone. Hell, they don’t even initiate the Chiefs (CPO) anymore! Anyone up for sensitivity training?

I know when I first started sailing back in the 70s, it was hit or miss. Of my first six ships, three made equator crossings, and we only had the ceremony on the last (and I was forced to participate). Never had one again that I can recall. . . .


It seemed that I had offended Neptune in some way and therefore had to be punished. But that was probably because you were an officer and the crew had now the opportunity to exercise power over us. My face and hair was smeared with smelly kitchen waste and oil. Nice.


The supervisory board.


Here I receive my personal certificate of crossing the equator from Neptune who by that time was already pretty drunk…


My baptismal certificate. My name given was ‘Slippery Eel’.


My brother was polywogged on the LNG Virgo many years ago. He considered it a rite of passage. No one was harmed in the making of his video.

A redacted Subpoena from Davy Jones from 2004


Trips that involved crossing the equator tended to be long hauls. When I worked on San Clemente tankers loading crude in Point Noire in the Congo we were too busy repairing heating coils while in ballast to engage in such frivolity. On other trips, particularly when carrying cargo for MSC having a crossing the line ceremony /celebration broke up the trip and gave the crew a fun break from the usual routine. From a Crossing the Line ceremony in 2005.

It is hard to look regal with a beard and hair from a mop but our King Neptune (the C/E) pulled it off. Completing the ensemble is a necklace made of Sardine cans that have punched out the letters: SALTY!
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The Court of Neptune in session with King Neptune and his assistant “Baby Neptune” (an AB)

The polywogs were required to spend their waking hours that day wearing their underwear on the outside and with chains of lashing gear draped over them. They were sprayed with a fire hose until King Neptune thought they were salty enough. They then had to get on their hands and knees and push an egg through with their nose through a maze of galley slop.
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Finally, they had to eat a “fish eye” (an olive) from the belly button of Baby Neptune, (liberally annointed with peanut butter.)
Crossing the Line 051

All the snivileing, craven polywogs aboard were transformed into tried and true shellbacks that day!

That’s the spirit! I like it.

Looks like one of the Cape R ships.

gawd i hated the olive thing !!

Some of the government ships I was on were more enthusiastic than others. But every drillship I’ve crossed on the last few years has had a great sunburn and vomit-inducing ceremony. Of course nothing rivaled the academy training ship back in the day.