Ever wonder what a Shellback is?
If you have served aboard a United States Navy warship either on the surface with an Arleigh Burke Destroyer or below the oceans layers on a Virginia Attack Submarine you may have heard the familiar terms passed in the galley or on deck: Shellback! There is the Order of the Ditch, and the cruise that takes you from the Safari to Suez and maybe the occasional Order Of Magellan. They may not be seen as much of a unicorn as say a Bluenose but not everyone is a Shellback and earning it isn’t as easy as it may seem. You have to cross the line and not every Navy Captain will do it.
So what is a Shellback? What does it take to be a Shellback?
As always, Navy Crow has your back.
A Shellback, sometimes referred to as a Trusty Shellback, is simply a sailor who’s crossed the Equator. You crossed the line, we have a little cermony, you get a certificate and whallah, your a Shellback! Makes sense, right? Well actually there is a more to it than just that.
So is that it? It’s just a sailor who’s been to the Equator?
Well if you played the odds like a ravenous Las Vegas craps player you might bet that making Shellback would come along at some point in time in one’s US Navy career. You would be wrong. It takes a bit of luck and comes from being at the right place at the right time with the right ship and there is still no guarantee. There’s a lot stacked against the average US Navy sailor looking to get their Shellback certification. Don’t get that tattoo just yet.
So what can you do to increase your odds of getting that coveted Shellback certificate?
Be a bubblehead! Go for submarine duty and pray you have a buckaroo for a Captain. Getting submarine duty is one almost sure fire way of making Shellback but then staying submerged for incredible lengths of time might not be your idea of drinks by the poolside. Likely this is one reason it’s positively so rare. US Navy dolphins, particularly those that head out on Westpacs, routinely patrol the globe that gets them close to the Equator. It might be the occasion to put on a “Steel Beach” and BBQ till your hearts content to honor the crossing.
If you’re in a rate that doesn’t involve a lady in gray and tons of oceanic pressure, your odds are better by going to a Tin Can like an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer or a sleek Ticonderoga-class cruiser.
Second, you can get stationed on the West coast. San Diego and Hawaii sailors are much more likely to set course for the Equator than their north coast counterparts in Norfolk and Bangor. It’s not unheard of for a north coast ship to go far enough past the Equator to qualify for Shellback, but it’s not terribly likely. If you’ve got your heart set on that certificate, best choose a ship in San Diego or Hawaii.
So basically that’s it and maybe a case of the finest to your detailer. That can go a long way too. And, unfortunately, that’s it. Remember that famous call over the 1MC that changes any gorgeous day into a torrential rain squall. Orders can and do change and all that planning you never had any real control over just went AWOL. To say that you can control the above criteria is a stretch, so let’s talk about the stuff you have literally no control over.
You need a Captain that’s willing to deviate course a little to hit the Equator. Commanding Officers frequently find interesting ways to justify going far enough to get the certificate, and often the morale boost for the crew is worth the extra fuel. If the CO is already a Shellback once or twice over, or just doesn’t care enough to do it, you’re SOL.
Palm trees, sandy beaches and a beautiful view from 40,000 yards out sounds great to a Captain interested in a balmier scenic tour of the South Pacific but that doesn’t always land you in the vicinity of the Equator. You also need a good reason for going that far. For a US Navy Dolphin, the answer is as easy as “it’s a really short trip to Midway.” For a surface ship, claiming that you’d “really like to see the tropics” might not cut it. However, if your ship has a planned visit to Australia coming up, you might be able to say you’re increasing the likelihood of tracking seagoing kangaroos.
Might be worth bringing up at an Ops Intel brief at the very least, right?
Sailors who get their Shellback certificate are a proud brotherhood. After a discussion on our Facebook Page, we developed the original design for the Shellback t-shirt. This US Navy shirt was hugely popular for sailors in the fleet wanting to tell the world they’re one of the few. Then one day, we got an email from a fan asking for a Shellback challenge coin that he intended to give to his son, who had just gotten his Shellback certificate on his most recent sub deployment.