Crossing the Line Ceremony – where Pollywogs transition into Shellbacks. Is the ceremony a fine nautical tradition providing entertainment, or is it a demeaning experience for the participants. Your answer is probably dictated by your experience on a cargo/naval vessel or a passenger ship. How long ago is also a key factor.
Read on for some of the history, my previous experience and photos from aboard Viking Sun.
Aboard Viking Sun and other cruise ships, you receive the modern sanitised version, which is good clean fun and light-hearted entertainment. However, I 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, but some discussion suggests 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 sailed across the Equator, we are known as “Shellbacks”. Although our first crossings were 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 welcomed 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 his 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.
- Smothered in rotting fish
- Received a number of mock operations
- Dunked backwards into a Salt Water 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 that’s enough history, how did the actual ceremony take place on the magnificent Viking Sun. Well rest assured, although it was extremely well hosted and performed, this was the ultra-sanitised version.
The ceremony was held on the pool deck, with the Viking Band performing for the previous 3/4 hr. Great music, whipping everyone into a frenzy for this great nautical tradition.
Rather than King Neptune, they displayed a welcome address from the Norse God of the sea – Aegir.
The passenger Pollywogs were queued, waiting for the fair trial and sentencing, but the crew members were paraded first. They were called over to the Cruise Director, one at a time and were read their charges. After a very brief deliberation, the crowd shouted “Guilty”
First up for the crew and leading by example was the Hotel GM.
Following the GM, were a number of Cabin Stewards, Cooks, Laundryman and a 3-striper from the Hotel Dept.
Sadly, once the crew performed their sentence, they only received a towel, no Aquavit. However, once the passengers started, they received both a blanket and glass of Aquavit. The Cruise Director advised they had over 250 participants.
Once the passengers had finished it was a free-for-all in the pool. Leading by example, first up were ……….. You guessed it, the Captain and Cruise Director.
Safety & Comparison to Princess
For the Viking ceremony, the Deck Department were well represented by the Captain & Staff Captain, while on Princess no deck department was present before or during the ceremony.
With Viking, safety was exceptional. As soon as passengers started, cruise staff were positioned both sides of the entrance stairs and the Hotel GM was stationed at the exit stairs. At the exit, the deck was mopped after every person exited the pool.
On Princess, they were more concerned with getting the pool and decks dirty. They covered the deck area with poly, which became a skating rink as they poured coloured liquid over everyone. I said to Judi, somebody is going to slip and fall. Sure enough a member of the Cruise Staff fell and broke her arm.
Winner – Viking
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The ship is vastly superior, as are the management & crew. Meals are very good and drinks flow like water.
Sounds like a pretty interesting ceremony you (Andy) had. I (Mike) became a Shellback in the 90’s on a US Naval Submarine. I was wondering if Viking provided certificates to the new Shellbacks? I received a nice certificate from the Navy.
Mike – affirmative, they provide a certificate in each cabin
Even by the standards of seventies cargo ship Crossing the Line ceremonies the Otaio version seemed a bit full on. I sailed with a few deckies who had done the first trip on her. The mental scars still showed years later.
My experience was comparatively mild. I had half my beard shaved off, and my brain removed. As an Engineer it was assumed by King Neptune (who looked a lot like the Mate) that I wouldn’t need it. Had a bucket of galley slops emptied over me and then was dunked in the pool. No aquavit but I was given a cold beer when I got out.
Enjoying the blog. I’m getting the impression that you like this cruise better than the last one.
Good to see you have the Aussie Cruise Director. We have had him twice, so-so the first time but much better the second. Great blog, thank you.
Yes, we have Bevan. He is excellent, last night they had a deck party and he sang or played drums throughout the show.
I see Elmer del Fiero is back on board. Lucky you!