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

Related blog posts

Wrecked! – The Remnants of our Southern Seas

Posted on Monday 05 July 2021

~ EXHIBITION SPOTLIGHT ~ As a land that has witnessed the journeys of explorers for the past 500 years, Australia has also been home to some of their ...

Read this post

The Rise and Fall of the Mosquito Fleet

Posted on Thursday 17 June 2021

~ EXHIBITION SPOTLIGHT ~ The Mosquito Fleet played a significant part in the development of South Australia, growing its economy and its relationships...

Read this post

Maintenance at sea

Posted on Wednesday 14 April 2021

Windjammers, like Moshulu, would spend several years abroad before returning to their homeport for an overhaul on slip. Crew maintained the ships when...

Read this post