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Crossing the line

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #122 May/June 2002

From Ocean Navigator #122 May/June 2002

The origin of the "crossing the line" ceremony — the initiation of sailors who cross the equator for the first time — is shrouded in the mists and myths of time.

Ancient seamen were a superstitious lot. They knew it was unnatural for man to move upon the waters and so made obsequious pleas to the ruler of the seas, Neptunus Rex (and his earlier incarnation, Poseidon), in hopes that he might keep wind and wave within tolerable limits and compel his sea monsters to refrain from lunching upon poor sailors and their frail craft.

Initially, rites were performed upon completion of a safe passage around a prominent promontory or when beginning to sail down the latitudes of ancient Mediterranean port cities. One documented ceremony, conducted by King Hanno of Carthage upon his fleet's safe passage through the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar) in the sixth century B.C.E., involved Hanno's constructing a coastal shrine to honor Poseidon for his assistance.

Perhaps not surprisingly, we can blame the Vikings for introducing a second element into the present crossing the line ceremony — hazing. Hazing of untried Viking hands during passage south across certain parallels might include dunking or dragging a novice sailor for a distance in frigid waters as a test of his endurance. If the soggy, salt-stained supplicant managed to survive, he was seen as suitable. When Viking raiders later began colonizing Britain, Ireland and France, their hazing rituals came with them. In time, versions of saltwater dunking joined already well-established Roman-based thank-God-we-made-it! traditions.

A remnant of the old Viking hazing rite appears in this log excerpt from Capt. Woodes Rodgers for Sept. 25, 1708:

This day, according to custom, we duck'd those that had never pass'd the Tropick [of Cancer] before. The manner of doing it was by a Rope thro a block from the Main-Yard, to hoist 'em above half way up the Yard, and let 'em fall at once into the Water, having a Stick cross thro their Legs, and well fastened to the Rope, that they might not be surpriz'd and let go their hold. This prov'd of great use to our fresh-water Sailors, to recover the Colour of their Skins, which were grown black and nasty.

Seventeenth-century French sailors may have been first to experience a combined version of Viking and Roman elements. Typically, the second mate would appear on deck dressed as Neptune, carrying a large, ornately carved wooden sword, with which¿he would proceed to savagely beat each initiate. A Viking-like "blessing" followed in the form of a bucket of refreshing cold seawater thrown on the bruised and possibly unconscious novice.

To celebrate a modern sailor's first crossing of the equator, Neptune appears on deck in kingly attire. His "wife," Queen Amphitrite (usually a hairy bosun in drag) and a retinue, which may include the royal baby, a barber and sundry other assistants, embarrass and playfully harass the novices, who are known as pollywogs. After the initiates are good-naturedly tormented for a time by Neptune's officials, they are presented to his royal personage and then are either dunked into a barrel of water or tossed into the ship's swimming pool. The ceremony ends with the presentation of a parchment certifying that the holder is now officially a shellback and has undergone initiation into the "mysteries of the sea."

In the end, this much-evolved rite of crossing the line also serves to bond contemporary sailors with all those venerable seamen whose vessels plowed ancient, uncharted seas.J. Gregory Dilldill.jg@ns.sympatico.ca