This cruise has been a bit unusual in that we transited the equator four times, and, given our proximity to the vernal equinox, we jumped between all four seasons. As exciting as this is from both a geographical and celestial point of view, I hadn’t appreciated the naval significance of ‘crossing the line’. I soon learnt of the seriousness of my hapless transgression when I was summoned to the Court of Neptune to answer to the charge of crossing the equator without King Neptune’s permission.
Those who have previously crossed the equator are known as Shellbacks, those who have not are known as Pollywogs. I was one of 14 Pollywogs on this cruise – 4 crew members and 10 members of the science party. Interestingly, this was also the first time the RRS Discovery had sailed across the equator. We received subpoenas and threatening notes posted on our cabin doors a few nights before the court date. Immediately we formed a resistance party and kidnapped the Master’s (Captain’s) mythical pet cat. The rhetoric flew, with most of us a bit unclear as to what was going on.
At 2pm we scattered to hiding places around the ship, although Tom – one of the officers – was locked in his bathroom at noon. I ‘hid’ on one of the upper aft decks with a drink, cushion and a book to read. In a Keystone Kops fashion, we were each found and thrown in a severely chilled ‘maximum security holding facility’ (aka a locked room). At 3.15 we were paraded out on deck and into the hangar, first past the cadet Taylor, who was strapped to a dolly with a face mask on, looking a bit like Hannibal Lecter.
Neptune’s police kept us in order as the Master and Chief Engineer, dressed in full uniform, prepared to welcome Neptune and his Queen on deck. The Royal Bailiff announced the ‘Queen’ and then the King. Each rose ceremoniously on the lift from the main deck to the hangar, shrouded in smoke and accompanied by suitably royal music (‘You Sexy Thing’ and the theme music to ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’). To say that we were shocked with what we saw would be an understatement.
The Judge then read our charges and we were given an opportunity to argue our innocence. Everyone was found guilty. Amongst my charges was posing as a serious scientist to get a better room – an accusation I could not deny. King Neptune delivered the sentence, usually adding a few deriding comments about the defendant. Most sentences involved kissing or licking the Queen’s navel or the royal couple’s child, a flying fish. Kneeling four in a row, we had our heads partially shaved by the blind (and seemingly drunk) barber. We were made to eat disgusting biscuits of dubious origin, before being sent to the surgeon. The medical treatment involved a healthy dousing in flood slops from the galley, which managed to end up everywhere, especially in Jake’s boots. In a surprise turn of events, the barber, Ted, was also tried and sentenced, receiving the mother lode of slops. As a final, but welcome, insult we were cleaned with the fire hoses. The King and Queen then returned to the deep on their chariot and, after a long hot shower, I joined a pleasant evening BBQ on the aft deck.
This tradition goes back at least 200 years. There are similar designations for crossing the international dateline, and the polar circles. We missed becoming ‘Royal Diamond Shellbacks’ by 6.6 degrees – this is the rare status of crossing the equator at the prime meridian. The ship’s crew did a fantastic job in preparing for the event, building the set and props and making the costumes. The actors in this farcical pantomime played their parts almost too believably. A truly memorable occasion. I am happy to be a Shellback, and I have the certificate to prove it.