Today, 1st May 2019 at around 2am we crossed the equator aboard the MS Maasdam. It wasn’t the first time we had crossed from one hemisphere to another but previous occasions have been only in aircraft, so today was the first time we had actually sailed across the line, and whatsmore we now each have a certificate to prove it.
Perhaps even more exciting though was returning to our cabin last night to discover our invitation to the King Neptune Ceremony. Anyone who knows me personally will know how excited I get as a celebrant when I can combine my love of travel with my love of ceremony and ritual.
Whilst I had heard of the King Neptune Ceremony before, this is the first time I had ever been witness to such and it certainly was a fun filled event to be a part of and it drew a large crowd to witness it.
Whilst the King Neptune Ceremony (also known as the Crossing the Line Ceremony) is now as much of a spectacle as it is a test, the ceremony has long standing roots in its practicality and was designed to test the novices in the crew both physically and mentally to see if they could endure the hardships at sea.
There are reports that the roots of this ceremony have evolved from Viking rituals, but was designed in its more traditional form by the Navy around 400 years ago and adopted by seafaring science researchers. One of the most famous scientists to be initiated was Charles Darwin and he wrote about this in his diary.
The first time participants of this ceremony are known as the Pollywogs and those who have gone through the ritual before are known as the shellbacks. The long standing shellbacks and senior crew are often the ones who represent the most commonly appearing characters such as King Neptune (God of the Seas) his queen, Davy Jones, the judges and numerous others.
King Neptune will notify the ship that he intends to exercise his authority over his domain and then various charges are brought against the pollywogs.
Accounts of this ritual during the 1700’s were particularly brutal with the pollywogs forced to cross dress in front of their superiors and then spend the rest of the day doing de-grading tasks, being covered in pigs guts, food waste etc, before having to courageously venture out into the open oceans to be cleansed of their slime.
Our ceremony onboard the Maasdam today was a little less oppressive but nevertheless the core elements of the ceremony were still there. First enter the chaplain, (ably portrayed by Assistant Cruise Director Clif Bolton). We were then all asked to stand for the arrival of King Neptune himself (aka the production manager Chandler) and his beautiful queen (our very lovely cruise director KK Robbins)
Captain Ryan Whittaker & his first officers then took their places as judges, entering to a rousing rendition of ‘In the Navy’ by the Village People.
The shellbacks dressed as pirates then led the pollywogs in attached to a rope and locked them all up in a makeshift cage before throwing buckets of ice and water over them. In small groups these newest crew members were brought to kneel in front of King Neptune, who after hearing the various charges brought against each of them ordered them to “Kiss the Fish” (and yes it was a real one!)
After kissing the fish they had to slide across the table in front of a team of ‘surgeons & medics’ who duly covered them in slime…or in this case, coloured foam.
All duly slimed crew members were then led by the pirates to knee in front of the team of judges, (who actually looked more like an x-factor panel) to decide their fate…….would they be dunked? or would they be saved?
for those who got the thumbs down, there was only one option as the pirates quickly came to aid in the ‘cleansing’ by throwing them in the pool!
Everyone appear to be having a very memorable time and even those saved by the judges were later jumping into the pool with their shipmates.
In an american naval publication ‘we are the mighty’ published in November 2017, USS wasp Commander Master Petty Chief Officer Greg Carlton said ” this ceremony has evolved over the years as one of teamwork & unity which allows sailors to craft memories that they will cherish forever”. I do hope that was true for the young crew members of the Maasdam today as they went through their crossing the line ceremony. It was an occasion that I certainly know I shall remember forever.