Crossing the Line across the century

What is a Crossing the Line Ceremony?

Crossing the Line Ceremonies happen when a ship crosses the Equator. All members of the crew regardless of age or rank who have not crossed the equator before must take part in the initiation ritual.

The ceremony has changed little since the 18th century. Many countries' ships would give some kind of offering to the sea and still remains in today's navies.

Crew who have crossed the equator before were nicknamed "shellbacks".

Crossing the Line Ceremony onboard HMS York 2006
Crossing the Line Ceremony onboard HMS York 2006 (RN FPU)

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The ceremony

The ceremony begins with King Neptune's procession, which includes his loyal assistant Davey Jones and Her Royal Highness Amphitrite.

Neptune's court is opened and the King addresses the ship's Captain and his men. The first new inductee is called for and seated above a pool where angry "bears" wait.

Crossing the Line ceremony onboard HMS Victorious in 1944.
Crossing the Line ceremony onboard HMS Victorious in 1944. (RNM)

The inductee is first given a thorough medical by a "doctor" whilst the crew watch the spectacle. The medical is a pantomime performance with over sized instruments and crowd involvement, the outcome is the giving of 'medicine'. The 'medicine' can be a large pill or spoonful of medicine normally made of foul ingredients and given without much care.

Crossing the Line Ceremony on HMS York 2005
Crossing the Line Ceremony on HMS York 2005 (RN FPU)

Later, the ship's "barber" gives the inductee a shave. The barber in these ceremonies more resembles a butcher and has fake bloodstains all over his white apron.

He wields a large wooden razor blade and uses barbers foam that is a sticky flour and water mix. The 'barber' shaves of the foam with an oversized razor, whilst holding the inductee's nose.

Razor from HMS Cornwall
Razor from HMS Cornwall (RNM)

The dunking then commences from the chair erected above the pool. Men dressed as bears receive him in the pool. These 'bears' then continue to dunk the inductee until satisfied.

The sailor becomes part of the order of the deep and receives a certificate to prove his new status. Neither commanding nor senior officers can escape the court of King Neptune. The Officer's dunkings by the 'bears' are often even more prolonged.

An officer gets dunked
An officer gets dunked (RNM)

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Sailors make these certificates onboard and often their quality reflects the available resources of the ship. Some certificates are incredibly intricate works of art where as some are small tokens of the day.

Other orders include the order of the bluenose when a ship crosses the Artic Circle.

Crossing the Line Certificate
Certificate from AB Sydney Bliss on HMS Queen Elizabeth 1944 (RNM)

Certificate to become a Loyal Member of the Most Ancient Order of the Bluenose.
The crossing the Arctic Circle certificate of Frederick William Collis. Received onboard HMS Royalist in May 1944.

View more Crossing the Line Certificates in our Image Gallery.