One of the exciting things I am looking forward to, and I imagine every sailor out there looks forward to, is crossing the equator at sea. This experience has been so looked forward to that a ceremony for crossing the equator is commonplace on vessels small and large. The cast of characters for the ceremony includes Shellbacks and Polywogs as well as King Neptune and Queen Amphitrite among a dozen other characters depending on your group, including the royal baby, royal barber and royal constables.
What are Shellbacks and Polywogs? Well a Shellback is someone who has previously crossed the equator and a Polywog is someone who has yet to cross. The Shellbacks take on the character roles and they subject the Polywogs to what would equate to mild hazing.
The Shellbacks dress in costumes which can be derived from whatever they find on the vessel, and most often they are in drag. Once they cross the equator, the Polywogs are summoned to be interrogated by the Shellbacks and are subjected to embarrassing acts including wearing their clothes wrong side out, crawling on their hands and knees on deck, being pelted with very ripe fruits and vegetables, or being soaked by a fire hose. All part of their initiation as Shellbacks.
At the end of the ceremony the Polywogs become Shellbacks and receive a certificate declaring their new Shellback status. By the way if you cross the equator at the 180 degree meridian, International Date Line, you are a Golden Shellback and if your cross at the Prime Meridian, you are an Emerald Shellback for the US or Diamond Shellback for the UK.
The ceremonies are reported to have started as a way to alleviate fear among the crew. When people first started sailing they believed all kinds of horrible things such as of course the world being flat so they would sail over an edge into oblivion or that they would be sailing into a land of fire that they believed was hell.
Naturally none of this was true, but leadership on a vessel would have the crew engage in the high jinks to dissipate fear and increase morale. And after time, the ceremonies just became tradition and in fact are still carried out by the Royal and US Navy today. Plus every cruise ship that will be crossing has their own elaborate ceremony which no doubt will involve a buffet of some sort.
Sailors like myself on much smaller vessels without the number of crew that a navy vessel or cruise ships have on board, derive their own versions of this ceremony to hold on board. I have some time to come up with mine and I look forward to the day I cross in my own sailboat. I am a Shellback since I have crossed before, but it will never measure up to crossing in my own boat. I’d like to get the Golden and Emerald Shellback designations too. Why not?
See you on the water,
Sail Away Girl