Crossing the line

The custom of nautical ‘crossing the line’ ceremonies has its origins in ancient times. The Phoenicians of the Mediterranean would conduct ceremonies dedicated to the god of the seas when passing through the straits of Gibraltar. The Vikings of Northern Europe had similar practices.

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) adopted the ceremony after its first voyage from England to Australia in 1913.

Modern ceremonies usually take place when a ship crosses the equator during an overseas deployment. The ceremonies foster a sense of belonging among junior members of a ship’s company. Crossing the line is a much-anticipated and fondly-remembered milestone in sea-going careers.

The ceremony is dedicated to the mythological god of the seas, Neptune or ‘Neptunus Rex’ (Ruler of the Deep), known as the ‘Majesty’. A senior member of a ship’s company, often a chief petty officer, usually portrays him. Other senior members of the ship’s company, dressed in vivid and colourful clothing, join King Neptune.

Members of a ship’s company who have never crossed the equator are known as ‘pollywogs’ or ‘tadpoles’. Members who have already paid their respects to Neptune are known as ‘shellbacks’. A golden shellback has had the honour of crossing the equator where it bisects the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean. Rarer still are emerald shellbacks, who have crossed the equator at the prime meridian in the Gulf of Guinea.

The night before crossing the equator, shellbacks seek an audience with the commanding officer, announcing their intention to convene Neptune’s court. This announcement is often broadcast throughout the ship. At the same time, all ‘pollywogs’ wishing to become ‘shellbacks’ receive a summons to appear before Neptune. The following day, the court helpers, or ‘bears’, round up those wishing to appear before King Neptune’s court.

Generally, the pollywogs parade before the royal party, after preparation by the ‘royal barber’ and ‘doctor’. Most are charged with the offence of ‘presuming to cross the line without seeking prior consent from King Neptune'. Defence testimonies are sometimes heard, but it is rare for a pollywog to escape being dipped in brine, a token baptism carried out by the bears.

New shellbacks are again brought before the royal party, and they admitted to the Ancient Order of the Deep. At this point, the royal party departs and a celebration takes place to commemorate the event, often in the form of a ‘steel beach’ barbeque.

In recognition of this important milestone, all new shellbacks receive a certificate confirming their title and status. Many different variants exist throughout the world’s navies and merchant fleets.