The ceremony of Crossing the Line is an initiation rite in the Royal Navy, U.S. Navy, and other navies which commemorates a sailor's first crossing of the equator. Originally the tradition was created as a test for seasoned sailors to ensure their new shipmates were capable of handling long rough times at sea. Sailors who have already crossed the equator are nicknamed (Trusty) Shellbacks, often referred to as Sons of Neptune; those who have not are nicknamed (Slimy) Pollywogs.
The two-day event (evening and day) is a ritual of reversal in which the older and experienced enlisted crew essentially takes over the ship from the officers. Physical assaults in keeping with the 'spirit' of the initiation are tolerated, and even the inexperienced crew is given the opportunity to 'take over'. The transition flows from established order to the controlled 'chaos' of the Pollywog Revolt, the beginnings of re-order in the initiation rite as the fewer but experienced enlisted crew converts the 'Wogs' through physical tests, then back to, and thereby affirming, the pre-established order of officers and enlisted. Like the old physically- and emotionally-intensive boot camp, the "Crossing the Line" ritual deconstructs then reconstructs the initiates' experience from newbie outsider into the experienced military fraternity.
The eve of the equatorial crossing is called Wog Up-Rising and, as with many other night-before rituals, is a mild type of reversal of the day to come. 'Wogs' - all of the uninitiated - are allowed to capture and 'interrogate' any shellbacks they can find (eg, tying them up, cracking eggs or pouring aftershave lotion on their heads).
After crossing the line, Pollywogs receive subpoenas to appear before King Neptune and his court (usually including his first assistant Davy Jones and her Highness Amphitrite and often various dignitaries, who are all represented by the highest ranking seamen), who officiate at the ceremony, which is often preceded by a Beauty Contest of men dressing up as women, each department of the ship being required to introduce one contestant in swimsuit drag. Afterwards, some wogs may be "interrogated" by King Nepture and his entourage, and the use of 'truth serum' (hot sauce + after shave + ?) and whole uncooked eggs put in the mouth. During the ceremony, the Pollywogs undergo a number of increasingly disgusting ordeals (wearing clothing inside out and backwards; crawling on hands and knees on nonskid-coated decks; being swatted with short lengths of firehose; being locked in stocks and pillories and pelted with mushy fruit; being locked in a water coffin of salt-water and bright green sea dye (fluorescent sodium salt); crawling through chutes or large tubs of rotting garbage; kissing the Royal Baby's belly coated with axle grease, hair chopping, etc), largely for the entertainment of the Shellbacks.
Once the ceremony is complete, a Pollywog receives a certificate declaring his new status. Another rare status is the Golden shellback, a person who has crossed the equator at the 180th meridian (international date line). When a ship must cross these lines, the ship's captain will usually intentionally plot a course across the Golden X so that the ship's crew can be initiated into the Golden Shellbacks.
A watered-down version of the ceremony, typically featuring King Neptune, is also sometimes carried out for passengers' entertainment on civilian ocean liners and cruise ships.
In the 19th century and earlier, the line-crossing ceremony was quite a brutal event, often involving beating "pollywogs" with boards and wet ropes and sometimes throwing the victims over the side of the ship, dragging the pollywog in the surf from the stern. In more than one instance, sailors were reported to have been killed while participating in a crossing the line ceremony.
As late as World War II, the line crossing ceremony was still rather rough and involved activities such as the "Devil's Tongue" which would be an electrified piece of metal poked into the sides of those deemed pollywogs. Beatings were often still common, usually with wet firehoses, and several World War II Navy deck logs speak of sailors visiting sickbay after crossing the line.
Efforts to curtail the line crossing ceremony did not begin until the 1980s, when several reports of blatant hazing began to circulate regarding the line crossing ceremony and at least one death was attributed to abuse while crossing the line.
California Maritime Academy observed the line-crossing until 1989, after which the ceremony was deemed to be hazing, and was forbidden. The '89 crossing was fairly typical, as it was not realized to be the last one. Pollywogs participated voluntarily, though women midshipmen justifiably observed that they were under social pressure to do the ceremony but were targets of harder abuse. Pollywogs (midshipmen and anyone else who had not crossed) ascended a ladder from the foredeck to the superstructure deck of the ship. There, they crawled down a gauntlet of shellbacks on both sides of a long, heavy canvas runner, about 10 - 12 meters. The shellbacks had prepared 1 meter lengths of canvas/rubber firehose, which they swung hard at the posterior of each pollywog. Pollywogs then ascended a ladder to the boatdeck to slide down a makeshift chute into the baptism of messdeck leavings in sea water in an inflated liferaft back on the superstructure deck. Pollywogs then returned to the foredeck where they were hosed off by firehose and then allowed to kiss, in turn, the belly of the sea-baby, the foot of the sea-hag, and the ring of King Neptune, each personified by shellbacks.
In 1995, a notorious line crossing ceremony took place on an Australian submarine HMAS Onslow. Sailors undergoing the ceremony were physically and verbally abused before being subjected to an act called "sump on the rump", where a dark liquid was daubed over each sailor's anus and genitalia. One sailor was then sexually assaulted with a long stick before all sailors undergoing the ceremony were forced to jump overboard until permitted to climb back aboard the submarine. A videotape of the ceremony was obtained by the Nine Network and aired on Australian television. The television coverage provoked widespread criticism, especially when the videotape showed some of the submarine's officers watching the entire proceedings from the conning tower.
Most navies have, since then, instituted regulations which prohibit physical attacks on sailors undergoing the crossing the line ceremony. In modern times, rather than a dreaded rite of initiation, the line crossing ceremony has become a popular tradition in the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard. In the PBS documentary Carrier filmed in 2005 (Episode 7 - "Rites of Passage"), a crossing-the-line ceremony on the USS Nimitz is extensively documented. The ceremony is carefully orchestrated by the ship's officers, with some enthusiastic sailors chafing at the degree to which "harassment" is disallowed.
Line crossing ceremonies are also carried out on many U.S. merchant ships. However, without the oversight of military justice, they can often get out of hand and lead to the abuse and assault which occurred in line crossing ceremonies of the past.
The ritual is the subject of a painting by Matthew Benedict named The Mariner's Baptism, and of a 1961 book by Henning Henningsen named Crossing the Equator: Sailor's Baptism and other Initiation Rites.
This is the text from a certificate issued on a United States Navy ship during the 1960s:
Know ye, that .................... on the ..... day of ..... , aboard .............. appeared at the equator at Latitude .....° , Longitude .....° entering into Our Royal Domain, and having been inspected and found worthy by My Royal Staff and was initiated into the Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep. I command my subjects to Honor and Respect him as one of our Trusty Shellbacks.
Davey Jones — His Royal Scribe
Neptunus Rex — Ruler of the Raging Main
The USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42), under way to Rio De Janeiro, crossed the line on 4 July 1966, and its crew became known as "Star Spangled Shellbacks;" however, no previous mention of such honor has to date been located.
Similar "fraternities" in the navy include:
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