From Slimy Pollywogs to Shellbacks: Crossing the Line

by Quintrel Brown, National Museum of the American Sailor Contract Public Affairs Officer

The “Crossing the Line” Ceremony may just be one of the most interesting traditions in the United States Navy. Dating back almost 400 years, sailors participated in the ceremony once they crossed the “line,” or equator, during a deployment. Back in the days of wooden sailing ships, Crossing the Line ceremonies were designed to prove a Sailor’s worth as a mariner, and marked their transformation from a slimy “Pollywog”, a seaman who had not yet crossed the equator, to a trusty “Shellback” and an official child of the mythological ancient Roman God of the Sea, King Neptune. 

While Crossing the Line ceremonies have changed over the years, they remain a prominent and controversial linchpin of naval culture. Although the ceremony’s initiation process varies from ship to ship, its structure remains the same and it is a tradition held close to secrecy. Early ceremonies were physically challenging and could even be painful or embarrassing to the Sailors. There were pageants where “wogs” were forced to dress in unflattering costumes and perform undignified tasks. Today’s Crossing the Line ceremonies involve skits, talent shows, gags, obstacles, and physical tasks. When a ship crosses the equator, high-ranking members of its crew and other Shellback sailors dress up in elaborate costumes, playing King Neptune or a member of his court. King Neptune then comes aboard ship to exercise authority over his domain and to judge charges brought against the Pollywogs that are only posing as sailors and have not paid proper homage to the God of the Sea. After the ceremony’s completion, Shellback Sailors are presented with a certificate that officially declares them a Son or Daughter of King Neptune.


Over the years, Crossing the Line ceremonies changed tremendously and nowadays the ceremony is much less humiliating, voluntary, and is a source of entertainment and morale boosting.  This ceremony is a unique maritime experience, and other milestones such as crossing the Antarctic Circle and deep sea diving have also been adopted in this tradition. Do you have any Crossing the Line memories you’d like to share? Post your (clean) comments below!



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