Crossing The Line

Introduction

The custom of nautical ‘Crossing the Line’ ceremonies has its origins in ancient times. History reveals that the Phoenicians of the Mediterranean, when passing through the straits of Gibraltar to trade with Britons, would often engage in religious ceremonies of appeasement to the God of the Seas during their voyages. The Vikings of Northern Europe also had their own geographical parallels.

The present-day ceremony is thought to have originated from the superstitions of those days and over time the custom made its way to the English-speaking world. The ceremony eventually lost its religious aspects becoming, to a large extent, a means of inducting young novices into the world-wide fraternity of mariners.

The Conduct of the Ceremony

Today the ceremony is performed chiefly to foster a sense of belonging among junior members of a ship’s company. Crossing the line ceremonies were adopted in the Royal Australian Navy fleet following its inception and first voyage from England to Australia in 1913. The modern ceremony follows an approved prescriptive format that ensures the event remains enjoyable and memorable for all concerned.

The custom of crossing the line was immediately adopted following the formation of the Royal Australian Navy, as seen here onboard HMAS Australia (I) in 1913.
The custom of crossing the line was immediately adopted following the formation of the Royal Australian Navy, as seen here onboard HMAS Australia (I) in 1913.

The ceremony usually takes place when one of HMA ships first crosses the equator during an overseas deployment. The mythological god of the seas, Neptune or ‘Neptunus Rex’ (ruler of the deep) is the ‘Majesty’ to whom homage is paid. He is usually portrayed by a senior member of a ship’s company, often a Chief Petty Officer. King Neptune is accompanied by an entourage of other senior members of the ship’s company who have a talent for theatrics and who dress in vivid and colourful attire for the occasion.

The crew of HMAS Perth (I) embracing the ancient tradition of crossing the line during her voyage to Australia. (George Hatfield Collection)
The crew of HMAS Perth (I) embracing the ancient tradition of crossing the line during her voyage to Australia. (George Hatfield Collection)
The ceremony was a much anticipated break from a ship's normal routine. This pageant took place onboard HMAS Australia (II).
Members of HMAS Vengeance watch on as a pollywog is welcomed into the ancient order of the deep. 3rd November 1954
Members of HMAS Vengeance watch on as a pollywog is welcomed into the ancient order of the deep, 3 November 1954.
The Royal Barber and Royal Surgeon assist Vic Knowles in his transition from 'pollywog' to 'shellback'. (Note the trumpet and merriment in the background).
The Royal Barber and Royal Surgeon assist Vic Knowles in his transition from 'pollywog' to 'shellback'. (Note the trumpet and merriment in the background).
The aft missile launcher onboard HMAS Hobart (II) was the perfect place to hear the petitions of those appearing before Neptunus Rex in 1985.

Composition of the Court

The Royal Court normally comprises:

First assistant Davy Jones - of Davy Jones locker fame;

Her Royal Highness Amphitrite - formerly Poseidon’s wife but adopted by Neptune after he defeated Poseidon;

A Royal Baby – whose presence demands an equal measure of respect,

A Royal Messenger – who delivers summons on behalf of Neptune;

A Royal Herald – who proclaims the arrival of King Neptune and his entourage;

A Royal Barber – who prepares candidates for their appearance before the court;

The Royal Doctor – Who assesses the physical aptitude of candidates,

The Royal Judge – who hears charges brought against the uninitiated and takes mitigation into consideration while deliberating on behalf of Neptune;

A Royal Scribe – who reads charges and keeps official records of proceedings;

Neptune’s Police – who are responsible for overseeing proceedings;

Royal Bodyguard – Neptune’ personal and most trusted attendants

Bears – Those helpers responsible for the baptism of all candidates who volunteer to appear before the court. Gaining acceptance into the Ancient Order of The Deep requires candidates to be doused in the salty sacred waters of His Majesties dominions.


Members of HMAS Hobart (III) portray the Royal Court during a crossing the line ceremony in 2018.

Pollywogs, Tadpoles & Shellbacks

Members of a ship’s company who have never crossed the equator onboard a warship are known as ‘Pollywogs’ or ‘Tadpoles’. Members who have previously paid homage to Neptune and who have been inducted into his realm are known as trusty ‘Shellbacks’. These staid hands usually dress up to observe and enjoy the ceremony, which provides great levity and a break from a ship’s normal routine. A Golden Shellback is one who has had the honour of crossing the equator where it dissects with the international date line in the Pacific Ocean. Rarer still are Emerald Shellbacks who have the distinction of having crossed the equator at the Prime Meridian in the Gulf of Guinea west Africa. One RAN officer, Lieutenant Chris Hole, had the unusal distinction of becoming a 'Golden Shellback' when he crossed the 180th meridian while serving in HM Royal Yacht Britannia. The certificate awarded to him is a rare nautical treasure.

                                              

The Summons

The night before a ship is scheduled to cross the equator, or ‘line’ as it is commonly known, it is customary that Davey Jones, the Royal Herald, Police and Bears will repair onboard and seek an audience with the Commanding Officer announcing their intention to convene Neptune’s court. This interaction will often be broadcast throughout the ship declaring when and where proceedings are to take place.  At the same time all ‘pollywogs’ wishing to become ‘shellbacks’ receive a summons to appear before Neptune. The following day the Bears will move through the ship rounding up those wishing to appear before King Neptune’s colourful court.


Left: 'Davy Jones' announces King Neptune's intention to convene a court onboard HMAS Hobart (III) with the approval of Commanding Officer Captain John Stavridis. Right: A 'pollywog' recieves a summons to appear before King Neptune. 

Generally, the Pollywogs will be paraded before the Royal party having been made ready by the Royal Barber and Doctor. The offence of ‘presuming to cross the line without seeking prior consent from King Neptune’ is normally the charge levelled at most. Defence testimonies may be received, but it is rare for a Pollywog to escape being dipped in brine, a token baptism carried out by the Bears. The timbre of the ceremony should be good humoured and enjoyable for all those participating. For most it is a much-anticipated milestone in sea-going careers that is remembered fondly.

Members of HMAS Darwin taking a 'dip' after a crossing the line ceremony. Ceremonies to mark important milestones during sea voyages have been practised by mariners for many thousands of years.
Members of HMAS Darwin taking a 'dip' after a crossing the line ceremony.

The Ancient Order of the Deep

Having become trusty Shellbacks inductees are again brought before the Royal Party and their worthiness to be admitted to the Ancient Order of the Deep assessed. After being welcomed in the Neptune’s Realm the Royal Party departs and an appropriate celebration is held to commemorate the event. Often in the form of a ‘steel beach’ barbeque.

Newly appointed 'shellbacks' after being inducted into the ancient order of the deep.
Newly appointed 'shellbacks' after being inducted into the ancient order of the deep.
 

Certificates

In recognition of this important milestone all newly appointed Shellbacks are presented with an ornate certificate confirming their new title and status. Many different variants may be found in the world’s navies and merchant fleets and these often become treasured souvenirs. A well-conducted ceremony will leave a fond and lasting impression on all as they are welcomed into the fraternity of the world’s mariners.

A certificate from HMAS Adelaide's 1924 world cruise.
A certificate from HMAS Adelaide's 1924 world cruise.
 
HMAS Australia (II) had the honour of flying Prince Henry the Duke of Gloucester's Royal standard. Several members of the Royal Family have been inducted into Neptune's realm, as was U.S President Franklin D Roosevelt onboard USS Indianapolis.
HMAS Australia (II) had the honour of flying Prince Henry the Duke of Gloucester's Royal standard. Several members of the Royal Family have been inducted into Neptune's realm, as was US President Franklin D Roosevelt onboard USS Indianapolis.
HMAS Albatross' certificate c.1938. (Note the wax seal of Neptunus Rex, this is a recurring theme).
HMAS Albatross' certificate, circa 1938. (Note the wax seal of Neptunus Rex, this is a recurring theme).
HMAS Sydney (III) certificate 1950. The blowing winds, Zephyr and Boreas, are another recurring theme.
HMAS Sydney (III) certificate 1950. The blowing winds, Zephyr and Boreas, are another recurring theme.
HMAS Vengeance 1954.
HMAS Vengeance 1954.
 
In November 1964 Derwent's ship's company celebrated crossing the equator in a traditional naval ceremony. Each member of the crew, from the captain down, received a certificate in recognition of the occasion.
In November 1964 Derwent's ship's company celebrated crossing the equator in a traditional naval ceremony. Each member of the crew, from the captain down, received a certificate in recognition of the occasion.
HMAS Stalwart  (II) 1981. These certificates gave talented artists onboard HMA ships the opportunity to showcase their skills. 
HMAS Stalwart (II) 1981. These certificates gave talented artists onboard HMA ships the opportunity to showcase their skills. 
HMAS Hobart 1985.
HMAS Hobart 1985.
 
HMAS Success 1996.
 
Today the RAN has adopted a standard certificate for use in Crossing the Line ceremonies but variations on the theme may still be found.
Today the RAN has adopted a standard certificate for use in Crossing the Line ceremonies but variations on the theme may still be found.
 
The Royal Navy has been issuing crossing the line certificates for hundreds of years. This example from HMS Vengeance dates from 1945.
The Royal Navy has been issuing crossing the line certificates for hundreds of years. This example from HMS Vengeance dates from 1945.
Certificates awarded for crossing the line come in varying different forms but all navies follow the basic concept of paying homage to King Neptune. This certificate commemorates the Royal Navy's cruiser HMS Sheffield crossing the line in October 1952.
Certificates awarded for crossing the line come in varying different forms but all navies follow the basic concept of paying homage to King Neptune. This certificate commemorates the Royal Navy's cruiser HMS Sheffield crossing the line in October 1952.
The U.S. Navy issued this certificate to personnel in 1943. The crossing of the equator at the international date line, or 180th meridian, is highly prized as it elevates the status of those involved to 'Golden Shellback'. This is second only to crossing the line at the prime meridian in the Gulf of Guinea which confers the title 'Emerald Shellback' on those fortunate enough to do so.
The US Navy issued this certificate to personnel in 1943. The crossing of the equator at the international date line, or 180th meridian, is highly prized as it elevates the status of those involved to 'Golden Shellback'. This is second only to crossing the line at the prime meridian in the Gulf of Guinea which confers the title 'Emerald Shellback' on those fortunate enough to do so.
Crossing the line ceremonies are a cherished tradition practised by many Navies worldwide. This certificate was issued by the US Navy in 1948.
Crossing the line ceremonies are a cherished tradition practised by many Navies worldwide. This certificate was issued by the US Navy in 1948.
Civilian airlines also provided certificates for travellers crossing the equator.
Civilian airlines provided a different angle on certificates for travellers crossing the equator.
 

Captain Clive Hudson, RAN, was presented with this ornate certificate by British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines pilot, Captain John Knowling. 1951
 
Crossing the equator certificates were regularly presented to travellers onboard passenger ships as may be seen in the example above.
Crossing the equator certificates were regularly presented to travellers onboard passenger ships as may be seen in the example above.