The Tradition of the Crossing The Line Ceremony

by John M. MacFarlane 2012

Crossing the Line

King Neptune and Queen Amphitrite on HMCS Stettler 1957.

The ceremony of Crossing the Line is an initiation rite that commemorates a sailor’s first crossing of the Equator. Equator-crossing ceremonies, typically featuring King Neptune, are also sometimes carried out for passengers' entertainment on civilian ocean liners and cruise ships. The ceremonies are also performed in the merchant navy and aboard sail training ships.

Sailors who have already crossed the Equator are known as Shellbacks, and those who have not are nicknamed as Tadpoles or Pollywogs. A Golden Shellback is a person who has crossed the Equator at the 180th meridian (the International Date Line). If a person crosses the Equator at the Prime Meridian they gain status as a Royal Diamond Shellback (aka Emerald Shellback in the USA).

The ritual is a ceremony presided over by King Neptune (the ancient ruler of the seas) who wears a gold crown and holds a trident. Sitting beside him is his wife Queen Amphitrite. They are surrounded by a villanous surgeon, a barber, guards and people dressed as bears. The form and make–up of the ceremony is far from standardized, and the cast can include a wide range of characters depending on the experience and imagination of the participants. The cast of characters in the ‘play’ usually includes:

	King Neptune
	Queen Amphitrite
	Davey Jones
	Chief Police
	Chief Bear
	Trident Stamper

The Captain and the Navigator would attempt to time the approach of the ship to the Equator for a suitable date and time. The proceedings consisted of several phases or ‘acts’. As part of the ritual polywogs (those who have not previously been initiated) are dunked in water. This procedure is intended to cleanse the initiate of the ‘dirt of the North’. Tradition stated that seamen had to be cleansed of impurities, both physical and mental. Once completed the polywog or initiate is designated as a shellback.

In 1922, while serving in the 5–masted barquentine Forest Friend, Bent Sivertz described his own experience ‘crossing the line’:

On crossing the Equator, second mate Sam Hort organized an initiation of newcomers to the ‘realm of King Neptune’. Chips the old carpenter sat on a bench in a long gown with a trident hat painted red. Sam Hort as Neptune's priest wore a backwards southwester and oilskins. Neptune’s ’slave‘ and Neptune’s ‘policeman’ attended in amazing costumes. We four ordinary seamen were seized at noon and locked up with no dinner. When the court was ready we were taken out one by one and presented to Neptune with a resume of our character which turned out to be deplorable. Several penances and punishments were awarded. We were made to eat rotten eggs, stand on our heads in a barrel of water, then tarred from head to foot with Stockholm tar and whacked with policemen’ sticks. The captain and his wife watched from the poop. Next day they gave us each a certificate.

The Crossing the Line Ritual follows a fairly standard pattern but the actual text varies widely. The verses read out for each individual sailor was crafted during the weeks prior to the ceremony. They were often clever ditties focusing on personal weakenesses or embarassing occurences. On occasion this was an acceptable way to give a hard poke to an individual (sometimes a senior member of the crew).


Once initiated Shellbacks are presented with a certificate or affadavit to mark their transition from Tadpole to Shellback. Most examples are in black and white but some examples are hand tinted and composed of elaborate line work portraying characters of the ceremony and other nautical motifs. The certificate is more than decorative. Shellbacks unable to prove their initiation by producing their certificate are usually forceably dunked again (just to make sure.)

Crossing the Line Certificate

An Example of the Certificate Awarded to a Shellback

Other Variants of the Ceremony:

It is only natural that similar adaptations of the crossing the line ceremony have been developed over the years.

There are also ceremonies held to mark the crossing of the Arctic and (rarely for the Canadian Navy) Antarctic Circles. In a ninety–degree shift of tradition, the crossing of the International Date Line, the meridian of longitude at 180 degrees, is often the subject of a ceremony.

Traditionally, crossing the Arctic Circle entitles the ship to paint the bull ring blue for a time to recognize the event. The first Canadian warship to visit the Black Sea wanted to mark that historic occasion, but since a black bull ring would have caused little stir, she too chose blue. While technically incorrect, she rather assumed that there would be few Canadian naval authorities around to complain.

Reference: Allan, R. (n.d.) What You Always Wanted to Know About Naval Tradition (But Were Afraid to Ask)

Similar ‘fraternities’ in the US Navy and have been adopted by many others. Various sources indicate that these include:

  • Order of the Blue Nose for sailors who have crossed the Arctic Circle.
  • Order of the Red Nose for sailors who have crossed the Antarctic Circle.
  • Order of the Golden Dragon for sailors who have crossed the International Date Line.
  • Order of the Ditch for sailors who have passed through the Panama Canal.
  • Order of the Rock for sailors who have transited the Strait of Gibraltar.
  • Safari to the Suez for sailors who have passed through the Suez Canal.
  • Realm of the Czars for sailors who crossed into the Black Sea.
  • Order of Magellan for sailors who circumnavigated the earth.
  • Order of the Lakes for sailors who have sailed on all five Great Lakes.

Modern Controversy

The Crossing the Line was intended to be both fun and a rough–and–tumble physical–contact activity. The ceremony was created and executed using wit, wisdom, references to classical literature and high theatre but included a degree of rough physicality. Many of the ceremonies involved elaborate costuming, props and stage effects. The scripts were carefully written and rehearsed in secret.

The ceremonies were often rough–and–tumble affairs and an opportunity for sailors to mete out ‘punishment’ to unpopular officers and Petty Officers under the impunity of a ‘fun’ event. Scores were sometimes settled in this way. It was only natural that from time to time this would get out of hand. Reports of horrendous activities, carried on with the acquiescence of senior officers began to surface. In the 1980s the arrival of women at sea and more enlightened views of appropriate behaviour spelled an end to participation in many navies and merchant fleets.

Over the years good–natured fun graduated into hazing – and the hazing became actual abuse or worse. Some examples can be found on the internet. When it was clear that the activities were not being thoroughly regulated by Captains and Masters unsuccessful attempts to regulate the activity were initiated by many agencies and navies. By 1989-90 the ceremony had become widely banned by many navies and agencies, – although may be now carried out in secret or in much reduced circumstances.

The Royal Canadian Navy has responded pro–actively to these critics:

Some years ago, an attempt was made to prove that the crossing the line event as observed in the Canadian Navy was demeaning and abusive. The Navy took the media on directly, and successfully showed that the observance did not involve dangerous or humiliating actions. Instead, it was demonstrated to be an age-old tradition involving safe practices that targeted all the uninitiated, regardless of rank, with amusing activities designed to mark the milestone. Diligent efforts must be undertaken to ensure that this remains true. The senior leadership of HMC ships must take personal and direct interest in the planning and execution of these events to guarantee that mild embarrassment, equally shared, is all that results. There can never be any excuse of cruel or degrading conduct.

Reference: Allan, R. (n.d.) What You Always Wanted to Know About Naval Tradition (But Were Afraid to Ask)

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2012) The Tradition of the Crossing The Line Ceremony. 2012.

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