Crossing the equator by ship is a milestone often marked by King Neptune baptizing Pollywog passengers and inducting them into the secret society of Shellbacks.
Crossing the Equator — that imaginary great circle around the earth known by sailors as LAT 0° 0’ 0” – has long been cause for celebration among seafarers. In fact, it’s believed sailors on French ships began commemorating Equator crossings as early as the 16th century and other nationalities including the English, Spanish and Italians soon followed.
While no one knows for sure why sailors began celebrating an Equator crossing, it’s believed the ceremony served two purposes. The first was just to give sailors an opportunity to have some fun by parodying a Christian baptism, but with a crew member dressed up as King Neptune instead of St. John doing the honours. The second was to create a rite of passage by which young men could be accepted into the veteran brotherhood of seasoned sailors.
Equator crossing ceremonies were usually quite rowdy and involved copious quantities of rum, and the occasional dunking of inductees or “Pollywogs” into the ocean. But once baptized, Pollywogs were welcomed into the elite fraternity of the “Shellbacks” by King Neptune himself and awarded all the privileges that came with this new status.
Cruise ships have long embraced the whole Equator crossing concept, and while their ceremonies are watered down (pardon the pun!) from the days of olde, they still provide a source of great fun and amusement for passengers.
Our crossing ceremony aboard the Crystal Symphony began at 11:15 am as our ship crossed that imaginary line in the sea called the Equator (we could feel the bump as we went over it!) and King Neptune and his Loyal Court came parading into the pool area with a collection of Pollywog passengers in tow. The Pollywogs were called one by one to the band shell where a prosecutor read the charges against them (including heinous crimes like making Caesar Salad in the bathroom sink), and then declared guilty by King Neptune.
Once convicted, the offending Pollywog was taken to the ‘surgery’ where the doctors and nurse cut them open, cleansed them of their sins, made them kiss a briny fish, and tossed them into the swimming pool to be baptized as a Shellback. At one point our Captain Ralf Zander objected to the mess in the pool, but he was overruled by King Neptune and forced to endure surgery and baptism himself to atone for his interruption. The crowd roared with delight when the good-natured captain was tossed into the pool in full uniform!
The entire ceremony was great fun, and attended by several hundred people who crowded into the two decks surrounding the pool area so they could capture the event on film. In particular, the ship’s comedian did a great job as King Neptune, throwing in several unscripted lines that had everyone – including his court members – in stitches.
As our ship sailed north beyond the Equator, our hilarious rite of passage came to an end. We had left port with lots of Pollywogs on board, but now had a boat load of Shellbacks!