Lieutenant Pearson’s essay was written while a student qt the Submarine Officers Advanced Course 98050.
As the submarine draws closer to the equator, Davy Jones does not appear on board with a message for the captain from His Majesty, Neptunus Rex. When the navigator reports “the ship in on the line”, King Neptune and his court do not appear. Shellbacks (those members of the crew who have previously crossed the Equator) are not recognized and pollywogs (those members of the crew who are crossing the Equator for the first time) are not called forward to begin the right of passage. Instead of the grand ceremony marking the momentous occasion, an LMC announcement states, “We have just crossed the Equator. Stop by the ship’s office for your shellback certificates.”
We are not certain as to why the customary pollywog to shellback initiation did not occur, but the possibilities included an underway schedule not allowing time for the ceremony, the fear of a perceived hazing incident, belief that it is not appropriate in today’s Navy, or operations precluding this type of celebration. Whatever the reason, there are several strong arguments for retaining the Crossing the line ceremony, including tradition, morale, crew cohesion, a sense of accomplishment, and esprit de corps.
The Crossing the Line ceremony goes back hundreds of years, is prevalent in many different societies, and is found in both military and merchant navies. As tradition goes, Neptune, the mythological god of the seas, was appeased by the seamen, and marks of respect were paid to those of his underwater domain. Today’s initiation is typically well supervised and controlled, mild in comparison to the cruelties and inhumanities of the past. Traditions have always had a very strong influence on our service and members; providing the framework upon which our military is built. These traditions should not be dismissed lightly.
Prior to crossing the line, the crew is divided; one group being shellbacks and the other group being pollywogs. The shellbacks prepare the ceremony in secrecy while the pollywogs anticipate what rituals and activities will be required to make the transition. The ceremony acts to bring the two groups together through the various phases of the event, culminating in an entire crew of shellbacks. The crew emerges as a more unified, cohesive group.
The boost in morale from this event can be quite substantial. The crew will prepare and plan for the ceremony weeks in advance and it will be the subject of conversations for days afterward. The ceremony can make an otherwise long, uneventful, and unremarkable at-sea period one in which the crew will remember and cherish for many years. When administered with the proper level of supervision and within the limits of good order and discipline, the initiation can have a positive influence on the entire crew’s morale.
Sense of Accomplishment
At the completion of the ceremony, the entire crew has a sense of accomplishment. The shellbacks have prepared and executed the rite of passage that transformed all pollywogs onboard into shellbacks. The pollywogs have successfully participated in the required events leading to their designation as a shellback; resulting in a more seasoned and experienced sailor.
Arguments exist for letting the crossing-the-line ceremony fall by the wayside. Some will say that in today’s technically advanced
Navy, there is no place for a ritual based on mythology. Others will contend that the initiation process might be perceived as hazing, and that even a perception of hazing is unacceptable. I believe the crossing the line tradition has a valuable place on board a submarine. The process just is well planned out utilizing senior involvement. Specific attention to detail will ensure a safe environment to minimize the possibility of personnel injury and equipment damage. Adequate supervision must be present during the ceremony to ensure hazing incidents do not occur. USS JOHN C. STENNIS recently conducted a crossing the line ceremony and their home page has an article describing the event. Included with the article is a picture of the Battlegroup Commander participating in the activities. STENNIS obviously had the right supervision in place to ensure a successful ceremony.
If performed properly within set limits, the ceremony can boost morale, bring the crew closer together as a team, give them a sense of accomplishment, and build esprit de corps.