Crossing the Line Ceremony – where Pollywogs transition to Shellbacks, is it a fine nautical tradition or little more than an excuse for what some may consider demeaning?
You answer to the aforementioned question will depend on the type of vessel and the year you crossed the Equator. Aboard cruise ships similar to the Sea Princess, you get the modern sanitised version, which is nothing more than light hearted entertainment. Good clean fun. However, I and many others can assure you that wasn’t the normal experience on cargo and naval vessels, especially prior to the 80’s or 90’s.
What are the origins of the Crossing the Line (Equator) Ceremony? I can find no definitive origins, as some discussion suggest it is a migration over time of an original Viking ceremony. Others say it is a migration of rounding the Cape ceremonies. Regardless, seamen are generally a highly superstitious bunch and many say it is to clean the Northern Hemisphere filth off the slimy “Pollywogs” and for them to make a donation to King Neptune and his court. The crossing the line ceremony was common place on British merchant ships and many of the world’s premier naval forces – UK, USA, Canada, etc.
So just how has the ceremony changed over the years. Since Judi and I have previously crossed the Equator, aboard ships, we are deemed as “Shellbacks”. Although our first crossing of the Equator was only 3 years apart, our experiences were substantially different. As a passenger on Oriana, Judi got the sanitized version, whereas on a cargo ship I got the full blown ritual. My first crossing was aboard the cadet training ship MV Otaio, in September 1975. The ship had over 50 cadets, who were treated like the lowest form of human existence, and while it looked like an ordinary ship, it was the equivalent of military boot camp.
The Shellbacks formed a court, headed by King Neptune, with all participants dressed in costume. The Captain would welcome King Neptune and his court aboard the vessel. Each Pollywog was paraded in front of King Neptune and a litany of charges were read out to the court. King Neptune and the court were judge, jury and executioner. After hearing the charges, King Neptune passed sentence, which not surprisingly was consistent for all Pollywogs:
- We were shaved
- Waterproof grease was applied liberally to all areas of the body with hair.
- Smoothered in rotting fish
- Various mock operations
- Dunked backwards into a SW pool that contained over a weeks worth of rotting galley slops
Was it a pleasant experience at the time, obviously no it wasn’t. However, I with many others look back with fond memories, as it caused no physical harm and was little more than good fun.
Three years later Judi crossed the Equator as a passenger on Oriana and got the sanitized version. They still had King Neptune and his court attend the vessel in all their fine costumes. The Pollywogs were presented to the court and similarly sentenced. It was more pillow fights and wacky pool games, with everybody ending up in the pool. The Captain and a number of senior officers were present, with the Captain welcoming King Neptune aboard his vessel.
So how has it changed aboard Sea Princess, a mere 35 to 40 years after each of our first crossings of the Equator. First thing I noted is that it nothing more than scripted entertainment from the Cruise Director and his staff, with the Captain and officers conspicuous by their absence. As with the other Princess production shows this one was devoid of costumes and stage props.
The event MC was our Deputy Cruise Director Kim, with her detailed script in front of her. Note the glove on her left hand, which I found interesting when she arrived on stage. This was required because during the event she was passed a thin rope necklace adorned with slices of fish, which she was given and then immediately put down at the rear of the stage.If she needs a glove for that she would never have handled the ceremony I experienced.
The stage for the ceremony, which is an area covered by plastic sheets at the edge of the pool. Note the area is blocked off to prevent access to the pool.
King Neptune and blushing bride Double D. That was the extent of King Neptune’s Court and the costumes were minimal.Normally King Neptune bride would be adorned with balloons to be a true “DD”.
The Pollywogs await presentation to the court for the reading of their charges and the eventual sentence. About 15 passengers and 4 crew participated.
The sentence comprised throwing jelly, spaghetti and a small amount of liquid over everyone while they sat in the seats.
The crew received a bit more than the passengers, but really still very tame. On completion, they specifically requested that nobody enter the pool area, so they grabbed a bucket and washed everybody off with pool water. No wacky pool games, no pillow fights, no tent for mock operations, really only dousing people on a very slippery surface.
In summary a very poor, completely scripted Princess show that was meant to resemble a fine nautical tradition. The entire activity took less than 20 minutes and I got the impression that the timing of 11:30 was to encourage passengers to come up on deck to maximise their bar sales, then once complete head down to the pub lunch. The other reason was an opportunity for the extremely annoying photographers to circle around trying to take your photograph.
For a comparison, I recently read a blog from a Holland America World Cruise where the Captain attended the ceremony and everyone ended up in the pool, including the Captain.
Yes, on HAL it is a bit different. And not just on the World Cruises. We’ve seen 8 King Neptune Ceremonies on HAL and the Captain, Hotel Director, Chief Engineer, Staff Officer, at minimum, attend giving thumbs down to the pollywogs.
More costumes, a HUGE crowd, definitely standing room only and backed up the stairs. A real fish to kiss, lots of crew in costumes, besides the very elaborately dressed CD and companion (with those balloons, yes). Lots of spaghetti, coloured egg whites, all overseen by the “nurses” in costumes.
Really a good show that get pax out early (by 3 hours) for the best seats.
You describe the pax vessel ceremony I recall from my days deep sea. The one we experienced was poor and very unsafe, as evidenced by the broken arm to one of the Cruise Staff that slipped on the plastic sheet used to cover the deck.
Not like the old days, eh?!
We are Shellbacks. I’ve only seen it twice where the Captain participated as King Neptune out of five ceremonies (might of been our Canadian Master if you know who I mean and a British-Aussie Captain). It has always been a hoot to watch with someone being thrown into the pool – Cruise Director usually if not the Captain, and very elaborate, very messy, and concluding in the Kissing of the Fish.
Too bad it was not as good as it could have been.