Sailing Across the Equator – Pollywog to Shellback

A great maritime tradition stretching back for centuries of seafarers.



Are you a Son of Neptune?  Have you sailed across the equator and been initiated into the order of the trusty Shellback?  If not you are simply a slimy Pollywog.  If you are a true Son of Neptune, like myself, you could mesmerize a bar for hours and consume copious amounts of Nelson’s Blood in the telling.  If not, sit back and let me tell you a tale of Naval and Merchant tradition that will make you sick to your stomach.

King Neptune on USS Vinson

King Neptune on USS Vinson - Image U.S. Navy, Public Domain

The ceremonies of the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Royal Navy began centuries ago when sailors were put through a shipboard test to see if they had the mettle and fortitude to be a good shipmate.  This tradition evolved into the ceremony that now commemorates a sailors first crossing of the equator.

The ceremony is always overseen by King Neptune himself.  If he can’t make it personally the most senior Shellback will dress the part.  The remaining Shellbacks onboard are responsible to put the ceremony together.  Once the Pollywogs finish the ceremony they are awarded their certificates and join the Sons of Neptune.

What of the ceremony itself?  Certainly some are more elaborate than others.  If you cross the line in a 40’ sailboat with one other Shellback, your ceremony will include some sort of embarrassing or maybe self degrading stunt followed by champagne or rum.  If you cross the line with 5,000 sailors on an aircraft carrier, like I did, the ceremony is much more elaborate, seriously gross, with no alcohol to toast your ascension.  Let me tell you about mine.

The USS America was on station off the coast of Mogadishu, Somalia in support of the U.S. ground troops in late 1993.  We were called in soon after the The First Battle of Mogadishu (Blackhawk down incident of movie fame).  We were not very far north of the equator while on station here but we had a serious job to do and no time to shut down to have some fun.  As a Naval Aviator, flying the A-6E Intruder, I got to fly off the ship every day.  Many times, I flew south and crossed the equator in air, but that didn’t count.  You have to do it by sea.

Word came down from the Admiral that we would leaving Somalia and heading to Israel.  Prior to heading north, he authorized a one day side trip to cross the equator.  The Shellbacks onboard were ecstatic.  Preparations were soon underway.  The barber shop began to save all the hair clippings for a week,  certain trash from the galley was saved, extra stores of peanut butter were brought onboard.  Teams of Shellbacks were organized to run each phase of the ceremony.

Mess on the Mess Decks!

Mess on the Mess Decks! ©2011 U.S. Navy, Public Domain

The morning we crossed the line, all Pollywogs were ordered to remain in their berths until called to their designated meeting spots on the ship.  I got the call around 7 in the morning and headed to my squadron ready room.  Quickly we were taken to the mess decks below for our first fun.  The huge areas where the sailors ate had been cleared of all tables leaving an empty floor.  We were laid out and made to roll onto our back and stomachs as well as do leg lifts.  All the while ketchup, mustard and kitchen trash were thrown on us.  I cannot remember all the foul things that we either rolled through or was thrown on us but it got real gross real fast.  Someone might have puked on the floor as well.

When this phase was complete, we were sent out to the huge hanger elevators.  These are used to bring planes from the hanger deck, immediately below the flight deck, up top so they can be used in flight operations.  As we huddled in the middle of the elevator, Shellbacks from above began to blast us with fire hoses.  The pressure was intense.  I can’t say how someone wasn’t washed overboard.  That said, the water was refreshing and helped clean off the garbage we had sticking to our skin.

Water Hoses on the Elevator

Water Hoses on the Elevator - Image U.S. Navy, Public Domain

Once the hosing was complete the elevator lifted bringing us to the flight deck.  We were met with what looked like an amusement park of stunts, gaffs and grossness.  Honestly, I can’t recall every station but a few stood out.  How about grabbing hot dogs out of a toilet bowl with your mouth?  Bobbing for apples in a pool dyed with shark repellent (bright yellow/green) with your hand tied behind your back?  Did I mention the chunks of vomit covering the surface?  The funniest was having to smash your face into the fat gut of the Master Chief, that was smeared fresh each time with peanut butter.  Yum!

As the obstacle course came to an end there was one last challenge.  A twenty yard plastic tube you had to crawl through.  It was full of hair from the barber shop.  As you crawled through on your stomach, Shellbacks jumped on you from the outside.  Everyone who emerged looked like Sasquatch, covered from head to toe in hair. It was even in your mouth.  This was probably the nastiest for me.

Shellback Certificate

Shellback Certificate - Image U.S. Navy, Public Domain

The finish line was a huge shower where you could clean all the food, trash, vomit and hair off.  Somehow, as vulgar as this all sounds, it remains one of my fondest memories from my career as a Naval Officer.

Not all line-crossing ceremonies were like mine.  Many are worse.  Today, the tradition is considered hazing by some and banned.  Don’t you love how great traditions passed down for centuries have somehow been pushed aside in the name of political correctness?  If you have the chance to sail across the equator jump at it.  You’ll have a great time becoming a Shellback and thereafter be able to say that you too are a Son of Neptune.

 

 

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7 Responses to “Sailing Across the Equator – Pollywog to Shellback”

  1. Shawn Martin (smdmartin) June 21, 2011 at 9:32 am #

    Awesome story man; I hope to one day join the brotherhood myself. I have heard of a few of these ceremonies but that is probably the most elaborate. We had some similar traditions in the Army that too have been pushed to the way side so to be PC; Kinda lame. Thanks for the tale.

    • Carl Grooms
      Carl Grooms June 21, 2011 at 9:33 am #

      Shawn it went down a few moons ago but I remember it almost as if it were yesterday. Fun. I can’t seem to find my certificate. Hope to run across it one day and frame it.

      • lee necker June 30, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

        I guess things do not change all that much. I was on the U.S.S. Rathburn FF 1057 on my first(only) westpac,in 1975!! I proudly became a shellback at that time. Our ship is quite tiny compared to the one you served on, so it was much closer with the hoses, and the nonskid on our knees!! I got stuck in the shit chute behind a guy who stopped dead nad added to the sewage!! Any one from the Rat sees this type say hello .Where’s weedle grub??? Tom Hardy,Stewie,BIG BILL. God Bless the U.S.A. Peace

        • Carl Grooms
          Carl Grooms July 1, 2011 at 9:03 am #

          Lee. Sounds like fun! I’m still searching for my Shellback certificate. I thought it would be in my service record but can’t find it. After i wrote this I’ve been on a hunt for it ever since. I’d like to frame it finally. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Gerry (Tony) Langfitt May 6, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

    Hey Lee…Carl, Great story. I to was on the Rathburne for the ’75 crossing. Imagine what goes through a 17 year olds mind when we crossed. But it is something that will always be a very important part of me. Probably the veery best part of my life.

    Our 20 yard chute was filled with a months worth of galley left overs and when we got through that we had to spit out the raw oyster that we sucked out of the belly button of the Kings Rep.

    LOL… What wonderful times.

  3. Alexis Rodriguez November 30, 2012 at 9:42 am #

    Trusty shellbacks I crossed the equator back in 03 on our way to Australia onboard USS Ingraham FFG-61. How would I be able to obtain the certificate since I was never issued one? Thanks fair winds and following seas.

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