Avon Van Hassel

Building Worlds and Filling Them With Magic

Travel is fun. You get to see interesting things, meet interesting people. And some places are special because of their relative location on the map, the fact of being place markers, or because of just how hard it is to get to them. Many of these places have traditions surrounding them, but the ones we’ll be discussing today are line crossing ceremonies.

A line crossing ceremony refers to a sort of ritual performed among the crew when a ship crosses a significant ocean line, usually the Equator, though there are specifics for other lines or landmarks as well. These ceremonies are usually performed by navies, merchant navies, and sometimes passenger cruises or sail training ships, as well. The important point is that by crossing a significant line in the ocean, you join a community of other people who also are considered well traveled sailors, called Shellbacks. Those who have not are called Pollywogs.

‘frolicsome’

History

The tradition seems to date back to the 17th century, during the Age of Exploration, when the sea was teeming with ships and sailors, crisscrossing the globe in search of gold, exotic goods, land, and less respectable trade, such as slaves.

What happened

The ceremonies themselves had a wide variety of events, ranging from silly to bizarre to dangerous to outright brutal assault. The captain would sometimes dress as a priestess of Poseidon, or as the god himself, and direct the crew in various feats and tasks to prove themselves worthy of the sea. They may be forced to strip naked and crawl through disgusting substances like garbage and tar, they might have soap and paint put in their mouths, they could be made to endure a ducking stool (a notorious torture device used during witch trials), and there would often be beatings with such things as firehoses, wet rope, or rods. Some sailors were seriously injured and even killed.

Why?

So, why go through all of this? Well, the main reason is the same as the rationale behind hazing- shared trauma is great for bonding. It’s also thought to toughen up the crew because the sea can be harsh, and also it breaks down a person’s ability to protest an order, no matter how onerous the task. In a storm or during a battle, you have to obey commands quickly, and can’t stand around arguing with your commanding officer.

Today, though, it’s mostly for morale, entertainment, and for the honour of being able to call yourself a Shellback. Rules are strictly laid out, now, and are adhered to carefully. When the rules are broken, the consequences are severe.

Martinette

In my short story, Martinette, Sulat joins a ship called Martinette, which is a merchant vessel. The route takes the crew through a rough and unpredictable patch of sea called The Squalls, but before they get there, they perform a crossing ceremony to bond the crew and prepare them for the ordeal they’re about to face. Sulat doesn’t see much of the storm, but she still has to go through the ceremony to earn the title of Lobster (the opposite being a ‘heifer’).

I won’t tell you what happens, though. You have to read it for yourself.

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