CORAL SEA - Sailors assigned to the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) participated in a Crossing the Line ceremony July 4, Independence Day, after transiting the equator while en route to a scheduled joint-forces exercise in the U.S. 7th Fleet Area of Responsibility (AOR).
Crossing the equator seems a very routine event in the course of any modern naval vessel. Yet navies throughout history have celebrated crossing the equator, or the international date line , or this or that particular line, for centuries. Why is there a ceremony at all?
"Back in the days of wooden ships, Crossing the Line had a fairly serious purpose," said Senior Chief Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) Bernard Dizon, organizer of the Crossing the Line ceremony events. "It was designed to test the novices in the crew to see whether they could endure their first cruise at sea."
The rich folkloric tradition of the Crossing the Line ceremony, is a tradition that honors sailors for crossing the equator, heralding from a time long ago when such a feat was a grave undertaking. The ceremony often involved varied events throughout which Pollywogs (or Wogs for short), the term given to those who have not crossed the equator before, were put through a series of initiation rites involving harrowing and often embarrassing tasks, gags, obstacles, physical hardships, and generally good-humored mischief. After the ceremony and with much pomp, the sailor was inducted into the "Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep." In other words, they transitioned from Wogs to Shellbacks.
"I had a blast!" said Machinery Repairman 3rd Class Veronica Cooley, who participated in a Crossing the Line ceremony last fall. "I was a little nervous at first, because I didn't know what to expect. But it was a lot of fun, and I felt like I accomplished something special. I'm glad to be a Shellback now."
Comparatively, the initiation rites in today's modern navies are far less stringent; whereas before the events of the ceremony were meant to be physically challenging and even painful for new sailors to accomplish, today those challenges are strictly voluntary and are reduced for health and safety reasons. The ceremony is now seen more as entertainment, building unit cohesion and a sense of shared identity, and for morale boosting than anything else.
"The tradition has carried on, but it's carried out so that it is in line with our Navy Core Values," said Dizon. "The purpose of the ceremony is to have fun, but it is strictly voluntary and Sailors can leave at any time. We keep it safe."
The Crossing the Line ceremony still holds to many of the same mythological archetypes as its historical parentage; figures such as King Neptune, the Royal Court, Royal Scribes, Trusty Shellbacks, the Royal Baby, Davy Jones, and her Highness Amphitrite often make appearances during the ceremony. Activities are planned, carried out, and supervised by the Shellbacks and any other non-participants who volunteer to make sure nothing gets out of hand. When the festivities conclude, the Slimy Wogs have the right to call themselves Shellbacks.
"Crossing the line isn't just for U.S. Navy Sailors, it's for all mariners," said Master Chief Fire Controlman Thomas Ward, the most senior Shellback aboard Bonhomme Richard. "Celebrating sailing over the 0 Parallel [the equator] is a time-honored maritime tradition. No matter how we express that tradition, it will always be a rare salute of pride to the unique craft of sailing the seas, which we have the honor of celebrating aboard our fine warship, Bonhomme Richard."
Perhaps the commander of HMS Beagle, Capt. Robert FitzRoy, describes best the value of the Crossing the Line ceremony in his 1839 book, Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836:
"The disagreeable practice alluded to has been permitted in most ships [...] And though many condemn it as an absurd and dangerous piece of folly, it has also many advocates. Perhaps it is one of those amusements, of which the omission might be regretted. Its effect on the minds of those engaged in preparing for its mummeries, who enjoy it at the time, and talk of it long afterwards, cannot easily be judged of without being an eye-witness."
The Crossing the Line ceremony is a unique maritime experience, a relic of the epoch of wooden ships and hardened Sailors daring to venture into the unforgiving environment of the open ocean. The ceremony, as old as perhaps the very art of sailing, in all its pomp and ridiculous charm and history, will hopefully remain an equatorial pastime to be treasured by generations of Sailors to come, so that they too can laugh about a chief they know who's wearing a swab for a wig, holding a makeshift wooden trident, and speaking magnanimously about Pollywogs and Shellbacks and the "Ancient Order of the Deep."
"The sea is eternal and sacred, and so are the traditions that accompany it," said Dizon. "As long as there are imaginary lines by which we travel, we will attach a special significance to crossing over them, a significance which also bonds the crew of the Bonhomme Richard together."
Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group is currently operating in the U.S. 7th Fleet Area of Responsibility and reports to Commander, Amphibious Force 7th Fleet, Rear Adm. Jeffrey A. Harley, headquartered in White Beach, Okinawa, Japan.