What rituals take place these days when you pass the equator?

Dear All
I’m a novelist currently just doing some research on cable repair ships off the west coast of Africa.

An odd question (although it seems like odd questions get the best answers here on the forum!) … What sort of rituals occur these days when you pass the equator? I assume times have changed and there’s not still the old system in place (“shellbacks” “pollywogs”)? But what sort of rituals do occur?

I’m working on a story about a journalist who is onboard a cable repair ship which passes the equator (going from Cape Town to Gabon). What might the crew say to him? Or what sort of rite of passge might occur, if any? (It has been suggested to me that it’s mostly U.S boats that perforrm any equitorial ceremonies.

Thanks in advance for your answers!

I crossed the line from north to south at sea in 2007 on a research vessel. We had a big to-do about it. It was an all-day affair. Myself and maybe a dozen other Pollywogs became Shellbacks that day and got the certificates afterwards to prove it.

Festivities started the day before at mealtime, when every Pollywog had to stand up in the messdeck, before the entire crew, and sing a song. For the rest of that day and into the next, Pollywogs were obliged to do everything the shellbacks asked of us. Mostly stupid little chores and games.

The next day the real ceremony started after breakfast. We first were sprayed down with the fire hose while crawling around the deck. After that, we went before the Doctor (who prescribed a shot of soy sauce and tabasco to drink). We then were allowed to kiss the Baby’s Belly (a shellback AB’s beer gut covered in peanut butter).

Finally, we appeared before court of King Neptune (the oldest shellback crewmember, who’s wig was my best new mop) and had charges laid upon us by Davy Jones himself (the captain). Our punishment was to take three rolls in the Whale’s Belly (which was a tote full of seawater and galley scraps that had been stewing in the sun all week).

The vessel then stopped at the actual equator and we were allowed a swim call to wash the stink off of us from the Whale’s Belly.

All in all I’d say it was a pretty authentic ceremony.


You sir would be mistaken! Although we were always taught not to reveal the secrets of the ritual to the uninitiated, I had a similar experience as described by @BilgeRat42 back my first crossing in 2006. Some of the worst smells I’ve ever been exposed to, and without the luxury of a swim call!

I’ve since participated several times since then, but on the giving side rather than the receiving, as recently probably as 2017 or 2018, so I’d say it still a lively tradition in some circles. Certainly we didn’t force people to participate, but those who chose not to were also not permitted to watch and would be denied the “privilege” of the title of Shellback.

I crossed several times without any ceremonies. On one ship, we did have a ceremony similar to that noted above. I still had to participate. Back in '79.