Line-Crossing Traditions

Hello and welcome back to “Karl’s Korner”, a historical segment written by myself, Karl Zingheim – Ship Historian of the USS Midway Museum!

As we approach Thanksgiving, it is all about traditions around here! One of the Navy’s renowned traditions is that of crossing the equator line. Are you a shellback or pollywog? Leave me a comment below to let me know, and let’s dive in…

Shellback or Pollywog?

Mariners, navy personnel, and on occasion, aviators, share a time-honored tradition worldwide in celebrating the crossing of the equator from one hemisphere to the other. Though many of the rites held aboard ship when transiting the equator may seem arcane and novel, there is a surprising consistency in their style and purpose that cuts across not only cultures and nationalities, but through time as well. When interpreting these outlandish, and often chaotic, ceremonies performed in a professional environment that, on any other day, is exactly the opposite, requires some explanation.

Human cultures are keenly attuned to anticipated changes and progressions in living life, and anything that marks a change of status in an individual, to attain a new level of experience or skill, is worthy of a group observation. Often, such a transition requires a price or burden to justify the recognition of this change. These “rites of passage” are as primordial as human history, and are recognizable across cultures today. They could be low-key and incidental as beginning kindergarten, more officious as in a graduation, sumptuous as in a wedding, or moderately violent as in an initiation ceremony. It is this last category that best reflects the nature of a Line Crossing event, for it attests to the nature of the profession that observes the occasion, and the concept of a passage and its price.

Seafarers have crossed the equator with regularity since at least the 15th century as Europeans progressed down the coast of Africa in search of the riches from the Orient. Life aboard small, storm-tossed wooden vessels was demanding, and mariners brought a coarse outlook to their profession. Experiences that could set aside one group of practitioners from the rest naturally evinced status, and attainment of traveling into the adjoining hemisphere, replete with its exotic sights, and new constellations, required a public form of recognition. When paired with the rapidly evolving lore of the sea, an outrageous, and rich, a rite of passage was born.

Although the improvised costuming and humiliating rituals are interesting enough, the most remarkable aspect of line crossing ceremonies is the consistency in format, regardless of nationality, commerce, or war. Before the vessel actually crosses the equator, all aboard are divided into two groups: veterans of prior crossings, known as “Trusty Shellbacks”, and uninitiated, called “Polliwogs”, or simply, “wogs”. For a brief time before the days of the crossing, the wogs among the crew may engage in loosely supervised shenanigans aboard ship, typically directed at Shellbacks. This is tolerated because when the day of reckoning arrives, an accounting will be made when King Neptune’s court convenes.

The appearance and composition of this regal court knows little variation. In addition to the King, equipped with crown, long beard and trident, are retainers such as Davy Jones (the royal adjudicator), the Royal Baby (a pudgy fellow in a diaper with a special mission), the Royal Scribe, the Royal Doctor (who purveys especially noxious liquids for the wogs to consume), and Royal Barber (to administer appropriate buzz cuts to the wogs), as well as others, depending on how well organized the ceremony is. The royal court is composed entirely of shellbacks, the most senior of whom is usually the Neptunus Rex, and the most heavyset being the Royal Baby. An exception to this casting is the Queen, who is actually a wog (notoriously male) who won a “beauty contest” held aboard the night before and appears in improvised feminine regalia.

The festivities begin when King Neptune ceremoniously appears and announces that he will pass judgment on all the Pollywogs. In practice, this often means that the wogs are set about the ship, often with clothing worn inside out, usually crawling on all fours, performing absurd tasks such as searching for icebergs with a pair of soda bottles, consuming the vile concoction the Royal Doctor prepared, and slithering through a lengthy chute filled with wet garbage saved for days just for the occasion. These proceedings are naturally supervised attentively by the ship’s own shellbacks, attired in roughly piratical improvised costumes, who employ implements (often, short lengths of fire hose swung against posteriors) to ensure compliance among the wogs.

After hours of crawling, slithering, absurd chores, and swats, the culmination of the ceremony is the kissing of the Royal Baby’s well-greased belly, swearing fealty to Neptune, and a backwards, headlong dunking into a tank of seawater. After this baptism, the polliwog is officially, and forever, a trusty shellback, qualified to wreak such a rite on other wogs in the future. To this day, the ceremony has changed primarily in its duration and ferocity, but it is a well-remembered rite of passage, and all shellbacks carry their cards, marked with the date and longitude of the crossing, with deserved pride.

Thank you for reading, Midway Family! Please leave me a comment below and tell me what you though of this month’s Karl’s Korner. Are you a shellback, or a pollywog? Leave me a comment and let me know!

Launch em’… until next time,

Karl