I wrote a little bit about this on my website, but I thought I’d take some time to go into more detail here. Mariners have a lot of traditions, most springing from one form of superstition or another. We aren’t supposed to allow women on board, for example, because they’re bad luck (which might explain why my toilet keeps breaking, now that I think about it). We – I’m using the pronoun loosely – also have a variety of traditions to mark milestones in the lives of our crewmates. Some of these are as simple as slapping the table repeatedly after singing “Happy Birthday” instead of clapping (which may be more of a Mercy Ships thing than a mariner thing). Others require a bit more flare.
One of the bigger maritime traditions revolves around crossing the various lines that crisscross the globe. These were creatively named “line-crossing ceremonies.” There’s a whole list of them that my buddy Sarah found, but chief among them is the equator. Anyone who hasn’t crossed the equator (on a ship) is known as a polliwog. Often, a slimy polliwog - just for good measure. Odds are that this includes you, dear reader, as it included the vast majority of my crewmates a few days ago.
The first time I crossed the equator was back in January of 2011, on my way up from South Africa to Sierra Leone. Sadly there was no pomp, no circumstance, and no real initiation beyond getting rained on as we crossed the equator. This time, we wanted to do something a bit more special. It was so much more important to us as this was even more unique than becoming a Shellback! We were to become Royal Diamond Shellbacks (or Emerald Shellbacks, if you’re in the US Navy). This only happens when you cross the equator at the prime meridian – known as the Golden X.
Now that’s cool. It’s also the rarest form of Shellback there is.
We couldn’t go through the usual rituals, it’s tantamount to hazing and no one has the stomach for hazing children.
We had to make a variety of other modifications too, as the ceremony hinges on the Royal Court of Neptune, and there are a variety of people on board who would take issue with that. In fact, when I designed the certificate we handed out to everyone, I initially followed the templates laid out by the rest of the marine world – I put Neptune in everything. I don’t personally have a problem with this, I know who the true ruler of the raging main is, but we figured it was a fight worth avoiding. So with a little photoshopping, Neptune stepped out and Mercy Ships stepped in.
My original version:
The Final version:
Aside from limbo and tug of war, we did have a little bit of an initiation when we finally crossed the line. In order for the polliwogs to get their certificates, they had to kiss a fish. Some went a little too far.
I also had a hand in two other special markers. That was a pun, which you wouldn’t be aware of without more context, which follows: I pierced the nose of one friend and the ear of another. With an IV needle, because I know you were wondering. And yes, I used hand sanitizer. The ear went perfectly. I’ve done that before. The nose… well we had an issue with it, but a little blood and a couple of sticks later and she was right as rain.
So I guess there was rain to mark this occasion too, in a wordplay sort of way.
The ceremonies we create to mark special occasions are often as special as the occasion in question. It’s really easy to do something and not make a big deal about it – to let a birthday slide or cross the equator with nothing but the rain to applaud you as you pass. This may seem like no big deal at the time, but what I’m realizing is that it’s the celebration that cements the moment. It’s the shared joy that makes it real. One of my goals this year is to be better at appreciating not only the moments, but the way in which we highlight them.
Is there a special ceremony you’ve ever been a part of that you think is pretty unique? I’d love to hear about it.
We arrive in Congo in just two days! This voyage has gone by so quickly. We’re also expecting the possibility of three presidents from three different countries visiting us at the same time within 72 hours of arriving. It’s gonna be a busy month. More about it next Wednesday!