Equator-Crossing Rituals on Cruise Ships

When cruise ships sail across oceans, or change seasonal home ports, their one-way itineraries are known as repositioning cruises. Often a longer and more unique route, repositioning itineraries have become increasingly popular among avid cruisers.

One unique factor about repositioning cruises is that many of them must cross the equator to get to their desired destination. Among many old stories of sailors and their rituals falls the line-crossing ceremony.

In the eighteenth century, the British Royal Navy established line-crossing rituals for ships making their way across the Equator. Back then, the captain of the ship would make a list of everyone on board and discover those who had never experienced a crossing; those who hadn’t were nicknamed “Pollywogs” or “Tadpoles” and would be required to participate in hazing rituals and other rigorous ceremonies to prove they are worthy of the transition.

Eventually, this tradition was adopted with different ritual variations throughout the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and beyond.

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Today, the two-day event is still a ritual in which previously inducted crew members, known as Trusty Shellbacks, aka Seaman of the U.S. Navy are organized into a “Court of Neptune” to induct the Pollywogs into the “mysteries of the deep.” Some physical hardship is tolerated, as each Pollywog is expected to ensure a standard initiation in order to become a Shellback.

On the eve of the equatorial crossing, known as Wog Day, there is a mild type of reversal of the day to come. The Pollywogs are allowed to capture and interrogate any Shellbacks they can find and use methods such as tying them up, cracking eggs over their heads, etc; however, Pollywogs are made well aware that it will be much harder on them if they participate in these types of Wog Day practices.

As a fun activity making light of this tradition, several Cruise Lines have started their own versions of the line-crossing ceremony! Volunteers, aka Pollywogs, that have never crossed the Equator step out for their “public hazing” in front of a crowd and someone typically dressed as King Neptune. The “King” will decree what the Pollywogs must undergo for the ritual. The “hazing” that ensues aboard Cruise Ships is a much more exciting and light-hearted opportunity; it is often described to include mildly embarrassing activities such as kissing a fish, getting eggs cracked over your head, or having water dumped on you.

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Experienced Shellbacks get to sit back and enjoy the show while the Pollywogs make their way to becoming Shellbacks themselves. This modern-day version of the ceremony usually takes place on the ships pool deck, where there is plenty of room for anyone who chooses to participate or watch from afar.

So… are you a Pollywog or a Shellback?