The infamous ‘Crossing the Line’ ceremony

Approaching the equator, windjammer crews could look forward to a short break in the endless cycle of work. Sailors who had never ‘crossed the line’ before— called ‘Greenhorns’ or ‘Polliwogs’— were hauled before King Neptune and his court; his wife Aphrodite, a Judge, Doctor, Barber, and guards, all played by the more experienced crew.

Costumes and props added to the spectacle, Jocelyn Palmer, travelling on Viking in 1947 recalled preparations for the ceremony.

I had a two-piece bathing suit, it was before the time of bikinis, but it was a two-piece, and I leant that to the man who was going to play Queen Neptune. He was very glamorous; he had nice long golden hair, a trident and a crown on his head. He wore the top part of my swimsuit and a skirt.

The Polliwogs were tried for their ‘crimes’ and sentenced — lathered in messy concoctions of tar paint, or grease. The doctor gave them medicine; on Moshulu in 1936 Howard peacock was given ‘a concoction of pepper vinegar and mustard’, for others it was a large ball of tar with ‘god knows what in it’.

Initiates sailing on Pamir in 1949 were handed binoculars made from two bottles with a line taped across the bottom. Keith McCoy and the other polliwogs looking through the bottles soon realised the joke; the bottles were full of saltwater and when upended they got an eye full!

Lathered in soap the barber shaved them, with a novelty cut-throat razor and large shears. Finally, they were dunked in a bath of seawater, christened and accepted into King Neptune’s realm, as ‘Shellbacks’. The initiates received certificates, sometimes with their new name.

Usually, the day ended with a riotous party, given a helping hand with rare treats of alcohol and fresh food.

Dr Adam Paterson

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