Crossing the line: Turning from slimy Pollywog to trusted Shellback

27 January 2016

As the Clipper 2015-16 Race fleet crosses the Equator for the second and final time of its circumnavigation, we explain the history and tradition behind the famous King Neptune line crossing ceremony.

This ceremony started at least 400 years ago as an initiation rite in the British Merchant Navy and is now practiced by most navies, and many other vessels now, to celebrate a sailor’s first crossing of the Equator.

Its aim is to observe a mariner’s transformation from slimy Pollywog (someone who has never before crossed the Equator), to trusty Shellback, also called a Son or Daughter of Neptune. It was seen as a way for sailors to be tested for their seaworthiness.

When a ship crosses the equator, ‘King Neptune’ appears on board to pass judgement ahead of allowing entrance through his territory and to hear charges brought against Pollywogs who have not yet passed before him, god of the sea.

High ranking members of the crew and those who have been Shellbacks the longest dress up in elaborate costume and each play a character in King Neptune’s court. The specific details of the ceremony are different on each boat, as you will read in the various crew and Skipper blogs today, but the basic structure is as follows:

Characters include:

  • King Neptune, Queen Amphitrite, Judge, Davy Jones (Neptune’s first assistant), Secret Police, Royal Baby, Bodyguards, Bears, King’s Messenger, Chariot Seahorses, King’s Trumpeter

  • Outline of the Ceremony:

    King Neptune and his royal court: his queen, Davy Jones, the royal baby, and other dignitaries, arrive to the ship the evening prior to the equator crossing.

    The Pollywogs entertain the royal court with a talent show. Dancing, song, skits or poetry count among the merriment.

    After the show, Pollywogs receive a subpoena from Davy Jones or the Bears to stand before the court the next day and answer to charges brought against them by the trusty Shellbacks.

    After breakfast, which is often made too unappetising or spicy for the Pollywogs to eat, the accused appear before King Neptune (often the Skipper or a high ranking, experienced crew member), who sits in judgment.

    In order to win over King Neptune and convince him of their dedication to the sea, they perform a variety of embarrassing tasks (entertainment for the rest) which might involve wearing their clothes inside out or backwards, crawling across the deck through objectionable debris, or having to empty the uneatable breakfast slop over their heads.

    Lastly, the Pollywogs take a royal bath in a pool of sea water before being declared honourable Shellbacks and Neptune allows them to carry on their journey.

    Less about embarrassment and shaming individuals, the exercise is about creating entertainment and cohesion within a team that lives, breathes and exists together for long periods at sea. The laughter and memories continue for a lifetime.

    Stay tuned to the Skipper blogs and crew diaries to hear how the Pollywogs and Shellbacks get on in the latest Equator line ceremony.

    Are you a Pollywog with aspiration to be judged by King Neptune and one day become a Shellback? We are now hiring Pollywogs (and Shellbacks) for the 2017-18 and 2019-20 race editions. Click here to apply…

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