The Navy is as full legends and tradition going back to 1775 like the US Navy and the Shellback ceremony and what happens when US Navy Sailors go to sea can and does affect our language and terminology. Many naval traditions, from Mermaids to Krakens, Sirens, Sea Monsters, Ghost Ships, Pirates and Gods of the Sea like King Neptune and Calypso (As seen in a variety of Pirates of the Caribbean films) to the boatswain’s call, date back hundreds and even thousands of years.
The Line Crossing Ceremony might just be the most interesting of today’s naval traditions.
A Time-Honored Tradition
No one is really sure when or how the US Navy Line Crossing Ceremony, originated. The some scholars believe that ritual dates back at least 400 years or more in Western seafaring. The US Navy and Shellbacks may have participated more recently but no one knows for sure the date that the first sailor crossed the line.
Sailors in observance of this time honored tradition of crossing the equator would witness the transformation of a sailor passing from a slimy Pollywog to a trusty Shellback. The Pollywog, something lower than toad stool, would be reborn after being dragged by ship and rope across the equator and would rise up from the ashes of being a Pollywog into a truer form of sailor as a Trusty Shellback and notable seaworthy sailor. The newly transformed sailor would be welcomes to the Court Of Neptune Rex.
When a ship, or US Navy warship or submarine for example, crosses the equator, King Neptune is brought on board to exercise authority and dominance over his domain and to judge charges brought against these Pollywogs that they are incorrectly posing as US Navy sailors and haven’t properly acknowledged and paid homage to the god of the sea, King Neptune.
High ranking members of the crew and those who have been Shellbacks the longest dress up in elaborate costume and each play the part of King Neptune’s court. For instance, the ship’s captain might play the part of King Neptune himself. What proceeds is a day of festivities, which builds camaraderie among the seafaring crew. There is nothing like the Shellback ceremony which is witnessed by a select few and known by so many.
How to Perform a Line Crossing Ceremony
Each US Navy warship might have their own traditions and subtleties , but the Shellback ceremony fundamental structure goes something according this:
- King Neptune and his royal court: The Court OF Neptune Rex consists of his queen, Davy Jones, the royal baby, and other dignitaries, arrive on the ship the evening prior to the equator crossing.
- Pollywogs entertain the royal court with a talent show. Dancing, song, skits or poetry count among the merriment. These are just a few of the items we can list here. Some of the events of the evening can’t be disclosed.
- After the evening show, Pollywogs receive a subpoena from Davy Jones to stand before the court the next day and answer to charges brought against them by the trusty Shellbacks. This is where the rubber will hit the road.
- After breakfast, which is made too spicy for the Pollywogs to eat, served with coffee and salt water the accused appear before King Neptune, who sits in judgment. They perform a variety of activities which might involve wearing their clothes inside out or backwards and crawling across the deck through objectionable debris, sucking the cherry out of a fat man’s belly to name a few. The Shellbacks ensure that no detail is left out.
- Next, the Pollywogs kneel before the King and kiss the royal baby’s belly, which according to some accounts is covered in grease. There are variations to this particular legendary exploit.
- Lastly, the Pollywogs take a royal bath in a pool of sea water before being declared Shellbacks, after which they receive their certificates, which they can proudly hang on their wall at home. The Shellback certificates come often with the name of the ship, commanding officer and the date of the Shellback equatorial crossing. The myths of these transformation Shellback ceremonies vary with each ship and like so many sea stories can often be experienced as recent history that becomes legend and transform into Shellback myth.
Boatswain’s Mates prepare for flogging! Many detailed accounts dwell only on the single final, elaborate ceremony that takes place on the day a US Navy warship traverses the equator, but the days leading leading up to King Neptune’s arrival, when the Pollywogs are separated off from the trusty Shellbacks, is also significant part of the transformation. The Shellbacks plan the coming festivities and come up with their list of ritualized activities, but they also spend these days making the lives of the Pollywogs utter hell and festooned with misery until a mock mutiny is staged by them on the day before the Equator crossing — They call this Pollywog Day.
Notable Line Crossing Ceremonies
Rank doesn’t always have its privileges. On the open sea the sea is the law and even the leader of a great nation must answer to the sea king, King Neptune. In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, too, received a summons to appear before the sea god and pay his respects. The charges brought against him:
- Disregard of the traditions of the sea.
- Taking liberties with the piscatorial subjects of His Majesty Neptunus Rex aka King Neptune.
The Shellback ceremony which has been a time honored tradition with the US Navy and many sea going countries across the world experience similar traditions in their navies. The history and heritage of the US Navy passes from Sailor to Sailor over the decades and the Shellback ceremony is one of these traditions. The US Navy has other wonderful experiences such as the US Navy Birthday Ball to be enjoyed every October in honor of the United States Navy. The Navy Chief season where first class petty officers are selected and initiated into the ranks of the US Navy Chief Petty Officer’s brotherhood and sisterhood is another such tradition. Since 1775 the US Navy has had traditions like the Shellback ceremony that have spanned lifetimes and brought about time honored traditions among the US Navy.