From one side of the globe to the other, it’s not about the destination – it’s about who’s with you along the way.
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No one is born a Shellback. A sailor’s career must start in one hemisphere or the other, and until he crosses the Equator he’s a lowly Pollywog.
Some may remain Pollywogs for years, or even their entire careers. A sailor could even reach the rank of commanding officer or captain before crossing. And until crossing, a Pollywog remains a Pollywog.
In the days leading up to crossing, a crew may segregate itself into separate factions of Pollywogs and Shellbacks, with the Shellbacks asserting their superiority in less-than-pleasant ways (for the Pollywogs, that is).
This period culminates on Wog Day, the day before crossing, when the Pollywogs stage their “revolt” and attempt to capture and “interrogate” any Shellbacks they can find.
On the day that the ship reaches the Equator, Pollywogs typically receive subpoenas to appear before King Neptune and his Royal Court, including the Royal Baby.
With the most senior Shellbacks among the crew in character as Neptune and members of his court, they demand entertainment from the Pollywogs – the more embarrassing, the better.
After kissing the Royal Baby’s belly and taking a “royal bath” in a pool of seawater, the Pollywogs are inspected by King Neptune, who finds them worthy and thereby initiates them into the Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep. Thus, they join their shipmates as trusty Shellbacks, a designation to carry with pride for a lifetime.
Now inducted, Shellbacks take on new status as seasoned seafarers. If they cross the Equator on subsequent voyages, the experience will be quite different as inductors rather than inductees.
But the real difference is joining the ranks of their fellows and sharing that bonding experience. After all, once a ship has crossed, there are no more Pollywogs aboard – only Shellbacks.
Just as Shellbacks mark the Equator as a symbolic boundary separating the uninitiated from the trusty, mariners also commemorate other significant passages, such as the Order of the Golden Dragon, for those who cross the International Dateline.
As any sailor will tell you: wherever you travel in this world, you’ll remember it best by the crew that helped you get there.