Crossing the Line; Equatorial Baptism

Leonard Lea Frazer

Leonard Frazer photos

The 20,000 Tonne Norwegian freighter, M/S Bris
The 20,000 Tonne Norwegian freighter, M/S Bris
So, what do Charles Darwin, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and I have in common? That’s right, you guessed it! We all participated in the line-crossing ritual that takes place when a ship at sea crosses the equator.

President Roosevelt was onboard the USS Indianapolis in 1936 and described what happened in a letter to his wife, Eleanor. I was in the Norwegian Merchant Marine in 1972, working my way around the world on the freighter, M/S Bris, and wrote a short story about the experience. Mr. Darwin was sailing on the second survey voyage of the HMS Beagle in 1832 and also wrote an account.

On February 17th the novices or “griffins” on the Beagle were assembled in the darkness and heat of the lower-deck, then one at a time were blindfolded and led up on the deck by “four of Neptune’s Constables,” as “buckets of water were thundered all around.” The first “griffin” was Charles Darwin, who noted in his diary how he “was placed on a plank, which could be easily tilted up (and on the edge of) a large bath of water – “They then lathered my face and mouth with pitch and paint, and scraped some of it off with a piece of roughened iron hoop – a signal being given, I was tilted head over heels into the water, where two men received me and ducked me – at last, glad enough, I escaped – most of the others were treated much worse, dirty mixtures being put in their mouths and rubbed on their faces  – The whole ship was a shower bath; water was flying about in every direction. Of course not one person, even the Captain, got clear of being wet through.”

 A crew member is laid out on the operating table to be examined by “The Doctor” as “King Neptune,” “Mrs. Neptune” and two “Sea Police” look on.
A crew member is laid out on the operating table to be examined by “The Doctor” as “King Neptune,” “Mrs. Neptune” and two “Sea Police” look on.
The whole process enacted by the crews of the ship’s crossing of the Line was originally thought to be beneficial to morale. The reasons for the ritual and the names of the participants that played the roles have evolved over the years. Traditionally, sailors who had crossed the Equator were known as Shellbacks, and those who had not were nicknamed Tadpoles or Pollywogs. The cast of characters in the ceremony have included: King Neptune, Queen Amphitrite, Herald, Secretary, Judge, Davey Jones, Chief Police, Chief Bear, Doctor, Barber, Trident Stamper, Policeman and Bear. Certificates were always awarded to each of the new inductees. 

 

 

The “Barber” shaves a “Pollywog” with a giant wooden razor blade as the “Doctor” and two “Sea Police” stand by.
The “Barber” shaves a “Pollywog” with a giant wooden razor blade as the “Doctor” and two “Sea Police” stand by.
April 30, 1972 - Crossing the Equator 

 

Here’s my own version of “Crossing the Line.” When crossing the equator, most ships have The King Neptune Celebration. This happens mainly on those ships which are carrying first-time seamen or passenger ships with a good ship’s Sports Director. The celebration consists of eight masquerading characters and people on the ship who haven't previously received their diploma for crossing the line.

On the Bris the eight characters were as follows: King Neptune, Queen Neptune, the Doctor, the Barber, two Policemen, a Photographer, and also a Bathing Master.

One hot Saturday afternoon there were a few of us sitting around the ship’s swimming pool (just a tank made by welding two sheets of metal between two hold-covers). We were waiting for the King and his crew to appear when all of a sudden the ship’s fog-horn started blowing. This was the signal to begin. Everyone arose from the deck and those with 8 mm movie cameras got in position. The royal party soon appeared. The King sat down on his seaweed throne beside his ugly wife (the 2nd Cook in disguise), the Doctor, looking like St. Peter, with a long white robe, rope belt and sandals, approached the operating table carrying his giant wooden sea chest. The Barber made an unnecessary inspection of his barber tools. The photographer had already set up his camera and studio chair and two Policemen, Peter and Bill, were sent out to find some victims that may not have heard the fog-horn or perhaps who were hiding somewhere below decks. The ship’s Chief Steward stepped forward to the table and poured drinks for Neptune and the rest. They had just finished the bottle when Bill and Peter returned dragging the first of the involuntary victims. Neptune nodded to the Bathing Master to put his glass down, and after he had climbed the stairs on the swimming pool, he disappeared from sight below the green waves. The victim (the ship’s cabin-girl) gave her name at the King’s beverage table and was escorted to the Doctor’s operating table.

 

The inductee is lead blindly up the stairs to the edge of the ship’s tiny swimming pool, pushed over the side, and once in the water, is held under for some time by the “Bathing Master.”
The inductee is lead blindly up the stairs to the edge of the ship’s tiny swimming pool, pushed over the side, and once in the water, is held under for some time by the “Bathing Master.”
The procedure for the King Neptune ritual is as follows: the victim is given a new name by the King from a list he has at the table and then is sent over to the Doctor. The victim sits on the operating table, which is in full view of the King and Queen, and the Doctor checks for any reflexes by striking the knees and other parts of the victim with a funny looking hammer. The Doctor has his patient lie down and then a very peculiar examination takes place. He shows no mercy and starts tickling the bare skin of the victim with an albatross feather. When it comes time to taste the doctor’s special potion, it is sometimes necessary for the two sea-police to hold the person's mouth open and secure their flopping arms.

After the visit to the Doctor the next step is a visit to the photographer’s studio. The subject is seated in front of a huge three-legged camera. A sign, with the date written on it, is placed on the person's lap. The photographer looks out from under the black cloth that covers the camera body and twirls his long black moustache to catch the victim’s attention. Then, as the trigger is pulled, a cherry-red spray shoots out of the camera covering the person's face. The victim will try hard to get out of the line of fire, but the photographer leans the camera forward on its tripod, and after the red stuff has covered the hair, face and shoulders of the screaming subject, he or she is lead like a blind person to the barber shop. The barber is standing by with his shaving cream, razor and wooden scissors and soon a brief haircut takes place. Most of the shaving cream is left on the victim, as the wooden razor of the barber is not too sharp. The barber pushes the pink-cream-covering body up the stairs and over the side into the swimming pool. The Bathing Master is there to dunk and wash the victim. That's how I got my diploma, anyway.