In these enlightened times of political correctness I am certain that the time honoured ceremony of “Crossing the Equator” has now been watered down to a routine, fairly mundane event mostly a spectacle for passengers on cruise liners.
Back in the day, when Nelson was a lad and I was an apprentice deck officer it was a serious event looking back to the days when ships were made of wood and the men were made of steel. It had a more serious purpose designed to test the mettle of novices in the crew and to see if they were made of the right stuff to endure the hardships of the sea.
By the time I first crossed the equator I had actually sailed twice around the world and progressed to the dizzy heights of Third Mate on a ‘dirty British coaster’, well not really it was a Cargo Boat or Tramp Steamer plying its way seeking profitable loads from A to B and in fact not even the Skipper knew our next destination or even our next cargo. My first trip took sixteen months and we actually had circumnavigated the world twice via the USA, and Caribbean, through the Panama Canal and back through the Suez Canal then repeated the other way around via Singapore, Shanghai and Japan all without going near to the Equator. We then left Japan still seeking cargo and sailed to Australia calling at The Marshall Islands and The Philippines.
It became apparent from seeing a cabal consisting of the Boatswain, the Shipwright and the Chief Engineer and ‘all the guys from the band’, that something was afoot. They became King Neptune and his Royal Court, Royal Scribes, Trusty Shellbacks, The Royal Baby, Davy Jones and Her Highness Amphitrite.
My memory fades in the mists of time but I can remember being very nervous when I was summoned, along with all the other Pollywogs (Google it), to appear before the Royal Court of the Realm of Neptune because it had been brought to his attention that the ship was about to enter those waters manned by a crew who had not acknowledged the sovereignty of the Ruler of the Deep and had transgressed on his domain and thereby incurred his displeasure.
I was seized, tethered and stripped of my dignity as I was covered with thick foam – a mixture of ox-blood and salt water normally used to fight fire aboard and then shaved from top to bottom by three of Neptune’s hand maidens using a wooden three foot long cutthroat razor. One of the said maidens had a beard and bore a strong resemblance to the Chief Steward, he might even have been a Bar Steward!
I was then put through a series of harrowing and embarrassing tasks, gigs, obstacles and physical hardships. The entire ceremony took over four hours during which time the ship’s ensign was lowered and replaced with a large Jolly Roger.
At the end of Neptune’s Assizes I was ordered to kneel before the Royal Baby who was the ugliest shellback member of the crew and kiss his navel, which was filled and overflowing with really hot mustard, Ugh! Spit!
Thence duly inducted as a Son of Neptune. . . . . . . . . . .Be it known to all Sailors wherever you may be and to all Mermaids, Whales, Sea Serpents, Porpoises, Dolphins, Eels, Skates, Crab, Lobsters and all living things of the sea . . . . . . . . . . I was that Sailor!