NOTE: Per my agreement with Amelia, our ceremony began with a prayer to thank God for our safety and blessings. It was important to me that we acknowledge these celebrations as a playful tradition and not acceptance of any other god(s).
When Ticket To Ride exited Mexico and headed toward N 0° 00.000’, there were three pollywogs on board plus one shellback. Any sailor who has not crossed the equator is considered a “dirty pollywog” or “slimy pollywog.” Those who have already crossed the equator and endured the requisite ceremony are hailed as “Trusty Shellbacks,” “Honorable Shellbacks” or “Sons of Neptune.”
Seafaring tradition, both civilian and military, demands a celebration/initiation of sailors who cross the equator for the first time. Post ceremony, a sailor looses his status as a Pollywog and becomes a Shellback.
At its essence, this means a person is no longer green or untried but rather has earned his stripes as a sailor. Celebrations and hazing are often hand in hand with the initiation and as the only shellback on board, Amelia had control of the initiation for Frank, Erik and me….
When researching the “Crossing the Line Ceremony,” I learned that this practice was originally created as welcome “folly” to boost morale on board ships. The pollywogs had to endure some pranks and prove they were capable of handling long and uncomfortable passages before being declared Shellback worthy. Even prominent guests on board ships were included in the initiation. Charles Darwin’s account from February 16, 1832 describes a bit of his initiation experience and concludes “at last, glad enough, I escaped.”
There are stories about the ceremony on board US Navy ships, including an account by Franklin D. Roosevelt in a letter to his wife, Eleanor. Roosevelt was on board the USS Indianapolis and his letter of November 26, 1936 refers to his “Jolly Companions” when describing his line crossing ceremony.
However, some very dark accounts about just how rough and wrong some of these ceremonies became were also found in my research. Since the 1980s, the US Navy has placed heavy restrictions against harassment during the ceremonies and today they are supposed to be well meaning, morale boosting events rather than an opportunity for hazing.
Fortunately for us, Amelia is very playful but doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, so I knew fun would be the sole purpose of our ceremony, with just a smidge of silly antics mixed in.
To fully appreciate the fun of this ceremony, please open this link to Amelia’s page where you will find the actual verbiage of our event.
While in La Paz, Amelia and I had spent time shopping and finding some interesting items for her to use to create our initiation. I had an inkling of what was in her bag of tricks, but I had no idea how Amelia would put to use the items we had chosen. As we approached the equatorial line, Amelia brought forth her ever present pink, waterproof bag; a clear indication that the shenanigans were about to begin!
Our first ceremonial requirement was appropriate clothing. As Neptune’s designated representative, Amelia doled out neon green spandex shorts for Frank and Erik. My shorts were equally stunning but in a flattering orange!
Once property attired, our first mandate was to individually demonstrate our gratitude to Neptune by getting our groove on. We had to show off our dance moves to the funky sounds of James Brown’s “Get Up Off Of That Thing.”
I could have used some liquid courage for this particular part! Frank won the dance round as he threw down some break dancing moves! He went all out, hitting the rug and spinning about to show King Neptune how badly he wanted to become a Shellback. I cannot believe we didn’t take pictures of the dancing!!
Remember that liquid courage I mentioned? Well, unbeknownst to me, that was exactly what was coming our way!
Neptune’s mermaid helper had
written a poem received an edict from Neptune’s Court which I have transcribed below:
Truth be told
Honesty is gold
Whereas lies get you shoaled
They’re shallow and prone to mold
In the realm of the sea
Only truth comes to be
And so entertaining fallacy
Is a zero tolerance policy
To test your integrity’s girth
And to ensure your worth
A serum of truth and mirth
Shall purify your bodily berth
True colors will show
If your pollywog fellow
Is friend or foe!
Stand a beam’s length apart
Make eye contact to start
Like Cupid’s intoxicating dart
Broke da mouth, not the heart
We uninitiated pollywogs weren’t certain what this tale foretold, until Amelia decoded the instructions…. we were to take turns: one dirty pollywog would don swim goggles and stand in the middle of the trampoline while another slimy pollywog would shoot him in the mouth using a squirt gun filled with “truth serum.”
The truth serum was a mixture of tequila and piña colada flavored Tang. For anyone who travels in Mexico, Tang comes in a ton of flavors and they are surprisingly delicious. They also make excellent mixers for sundowners – or truth serum!
Honestly, we were laughing so hard just standing in the middle of the trampoline wearing ridiculous shorts and goggles, that we were choking on laughter before the truth serum was shot. Aiming a squirt gun is not a perfectly accurate endeavor, especially when combined with a moving boat and a springy trampoline!
Soon our faces and chests were tie-dyed with truth serum. When the alcohol actually hit the mark, it ricochetted with vigor into our mouths and we would all double over in laughter while the sprayed pollywog gasped to swallow before laugh-snorting truth serum through his nose!
The final act of devotion required was signing a creed to Neptune.
“Now, the third and final deed is a signing of our creed. However, as the rulers of ink are preoccupied with international peace treaties, the octopus clan has requested you sign by the hair of your chinny chin chin. And since none of y’all got hair on your chinny chin chin, a specimen must be procured from elsewhere on your shiny shaved pollywog skins. By offering a lock, you’ll unlock the secrets of the seas. And when cast upon the breeze, it shall be warmly received as a proclamation of your authentic presence here and now and eternal allegiance to living in right relations with the elemental forces of nature within and around you.”
Having plenty of hair upon my head, I offered a lock of hair. Amelia managed to secure a specimen from Frank’s head as well. Alas, Erik’s hair was deemed too short, so Amelia wrestled an offering from his armpit!
Once harvested, our hair was cast upon the equatorial line along with libations of thanks for the initiation and requests for safe passages along our routes.
We toasted with Prosecco, shared our bubbles with Neptune, turned up the dance music and proceeded to celebrate and cavort on the back deck of TTR.
Post toast and dance, we flung the empty Prosecco bottle into the sea to remind Neptune’s Court of our exuberant celebration and create sea glass glitter in the depth of the equatorial sand.
Amelia slipped away and returned with our official Shellback Certificates which we now have prominently displayed in our room.
The final act of our celebrating our arrival at the equator was deploying the floating line behind TTR and all of us jumping into the water. Once again, we were swimming in the brilliant blue of the Pacific Ocean. This time at N 0° 00.000’! Our location was further south and we were a ship full of honorable shellbacks; the dirty pollywogs were no more!
This write up cannot capture the fun we had celebrating our first “Crossing the Line” and I am unable to truly share the elation and laughter on board. There was something joyous and elemental about reaching the equator that deserved recognition. I am so glad we commemorated the accomplishment with a memorable celebration rather than simply sailing across the equator as if it were “just another day.”
Amelia created an event for our initiation into Shellbacks that was as memorable as it was fun! Thank you, Amelia. You are one very special person.
Thanks for reading our blog about Crossing the Line. I hope you enjoyed it and have a sense of the fun we shared. If you have questions, please let us know. If you want more information about this tradition, Wikipedia was a good resource and there are many blogs about both civilian and military ceremonies.