Sailor Ritual- Crossing the Equator


CM: I have two stories about my grandfather. He told me a story from when he was a very young man, when he was a deep water sailor, sailing a steel hauled clipper around Cape Horn. When he left the Mediterranean to sail south, the ship had to cross the equator. The tradition went that whenever a sailor crosses the equator for the first time, he goes through a traditional ritual where he is put through a series of comical trials— for example, being doused with water— and other hazing-like activities. The Captain dressed up as Neptune and the ceremony was used to initiated the sailor into the club as a true deep water sailor.”


The speaker’s grandfather was a sailor during the early 20th century. The ship was likely American, although the informant’s grandfather was from Austria. The ritual was done on the ship whenever there was a sailor who had not crossed the equator before. The informant’s grandfather took trips through the equator working as a sailor multiple times.


Being a sailor is a high-risk job, particularly so in the early 20th century when the informant’s grandfather worked. This initiation ritual supports the idea that the equator was a meaningful marker to sailors. Furthermore, the ritual is an excuse to have a celebration, which on a ship with no technology to communicate with the outside world would be important for morale. The somewhat silly ritual contradicts the otherwise dangerous life of a sailor. A discussion of the various ways this ritual has been performed, especially pointing out the fact that the ritual is somewhat of an initiation practice for “landlubbers”, can be found on pgs. 154-159 of Keith P. Richardson’s 1977 article for the Western Folklore journal (Vol. 36, no. 2) titled “Polliwogs and Shellbacks: An Analysis of the Equator Crossing Ritual (Western States Folklore Society).