Crossing the line is an important milestone in a young sailor’s life. King Neptune demands that every time a ship crosses the equator, everyone aboard be called to account for his sins and he rises from the deep to hold court. He pays special attention to those who are crossing the line for the first time. A visit from Neptune is an momentous event and the day that a ship crosses the line is set aside for festivities and the libations flow freely.
The first event of our day was the Race to the Line. The brave souls from the ship’s crew launch all manner of craft into the inky blue ocean and race the last 100 yards to be the first to cross the equator. A few sailors take the race seriously and build elaborate sailing vessels and canoes but emphasize novelty over velocity and a more typical craft is an inflatable sheep or a sex doll chosen, no doubt, for her seaworthiness rather than her pulchritude. Sadly, our race had to be called off on account of the unusual number of sharks surrounding our ship so we turned to the second event of the day – the three-legged volleyball.
My readers have doubtless run a three-legged race in their youth and three-legged volleyball is organized along the same principles. Each team consists of four pairs of player, each tied to his neighbour at the ankle and the thigh. The ball is tethered by a long rope to the net posts to prevent it going over the side. The combination of the Siamese contestants, the tangling rope and the vast quantities of beer is practically guaranteed to ensure hilarity. The WEMs’ mess – my mess – won the day! Hoorah! More beer for us!
Time for the diving contest and the Jimmy decided that we would safe from the sharks if we posted sailors with machine guns on the bridge wing. No one wondered whether we would be safe from drunken sailors with machine guns. We had three dives each and I took second place with a pike dive, an inward and one-and-a-half somersaults. Hooray! More beer!
I did a little extra curricular diving later in the day. I dived from the bridge wing – about 35 feet up. You had to dive out about 8 feet to clear the side of the ship and my foot slipped as I dived. I tumbled a full somersault and narrowly missed hitting my head on the side. Oooh. Close one!
Next up was the deck hockey. Deck hockey is a traditional naval pastime – more ancient than Uckers – played with a puck made of masking tape and a set of walking sticks which double as weapons. The WEMs won again! More beer!
Time for the main event of the day – The Court of King Neptune. The role of the King was played by the Chief WEM who was the fattest man that I have ever seen in real life.
He was also the meanest. We called him Ten Bellies. Not to his face, of course – except that one time when Jumper Collins called him that over the phone. Ooooh! That did not end well!
King Neptune has a large entourage of oddball characters – a judge, a doctor, his queen, some henchmen and (honestly) the Three Bears. Neptune’s Queen Consort was played by my very best friend Jacko.
King Neptune starts the proceedings with a speech about how there are sinners aboard and he has come to deliver justice. One by one, the sinners were called up to the dock and the charges against them are read aloud.
The Captain is the first defendant and then the Jimmy and they are followed by all the first-timers. The routine is the same each time and – as far as I know – has barely changed over the centuries. King Neptune calls the name of a sinner and Neptune’s henchmen armed with maces, battle-axes and clubs made from masking tape apprehend the suspect, beat the crap out of you and drag you to the dock – a large, red chair – where you prepare to face justice.
The Judge reads the trumped-up charges and quickly finds you guilty [this is not too different from normal military justice, about which more another time – ed]. The Doctor forces you to swallow a disgusting and unfeasibly large pill and then the chair dumps you unceremoniously into a pool filled with nasty-smelling leftovers from the galley where the three bears beat you some more.
I have compared notes with sailors from other nations and they all report a similarly bizarre ceremony with only minor differences in the proceedings. How great is it that such a crazy ceremony should survive for so many years?
There were on board the ship a great number of officers and seamen, who had never yet gone South of the Tropics, consequently were to be initiated into the mysteries of crossing the Equinoctial line, and entering the dominions of Neptune; great preparations had been making since our leaving Woolwich, for an event which promised to some part of the crew great amusement, to the other great fear; many a poor girl at Woolwich, and at Spithead had been deprived of some part of her wardrobe, to adorn Amphitrite; from one a night cap and gown had been stolen, from another some other part of dress, and although I had no hand in it, I was as bad as the rest, for I was consenting thereto. An immense grey horse hair wig, sufficiently long to reach well down the back of Neptune, had been purchased in England by subscription, accompanied by a venerable grey beard to sweep his aged breast; a tin crown and a trident completed the regalia. On a review of all those who previously had crossed the line, I was selected as Neptune; in vain I endeavoured to defend myself from being deified, it was useless, I must be Neptune, all remonstrance was vain; I took it, resolved to use the trident with mildness. Now reader fancy to yourself the writer of these lines with his legs and arms well blacked, his cheeks, vermillion, short and very loose trowsers, a double frilled shirt, from whose ample folds the salt water dripped plentifully, two swabs for epaulets, a long grey horse hair wig, a venerable beard of the same colour, a tin crown, a trident, and to complete the whole, a hoarse church yard cough; fancy all this I say, and Neptune, or your humble servant in his shape stands before you. The evening before we expected to cross the line, the lookout man reported at 8, P.M., a light a head; presently a hoarse voice hailed “ship ahoy” which being answered by the Captain, Neptune intimated his intention to visit the ship early next morning. Accordingly early in the morning the ship was made snug, the top-sails were close reefed, courses hauled up, top gallant sails furled, a new sail was secured to the gunwale of the barge on the booms, the other edge to the hammock netting, leaving a hollow of eight feet, capable of containing an immense quantity of water; into this sail the very men who were to be dipped in it, were employed in pumping and bailing water, little thinking, poor creatures, they were making a rod for themselves. A gun had been dismounted on the forecastle, the carriage made into a car, on which were to sit Neptune and Amphitrite, and between them the Triton; in order to keep all secret, a sail was run across the forecastle to screen Neptune and his gang from observation. Just before the appointed time, all who were likely to undergo the dreadful operation of shaving were ordered below, the gratings put on, and a constable stationed to prevent the ascent of more than one at a time; a wise regulation, for our numbers were nearly equal, and had they shown fight, might have conquered; a rope was rove through a block on the main yard arm, to one end of which was secured a handspike, astride of which sat a man with his hands fastened to the rope over his head.
The first of the ship’s company that were shaved, who was brought up blindfolded by the whole posse of constables was the armourer, a weather-beaten honest old Hibernian, who had been a farrier in the Peninsular Army for many years. At the reduction, he had found his way as armourer of some small craft, and thence to our ship; on his entering for our ship, so anxious was he to be within the given age, which was thirty, that on being asked his age he gave it as eight and twenty, although fifty six was written in legible characters on his old cribbage face, which throughout the ship’s company had gained him the cognomen of old eight and twenty. On this man then the barber had to perform his first functions; a bucket was filled with all the cleanings of the hen coops, pig-stys, &c. and with it a due proportion of tar had been mixed; with a large paint brush dipped in this villanous compound, and his razor, close to him the barber stood waiting the signal. My first question was “what is your name my man?” “John S—-, your honour,” at the instant of his opening his mouth the brush went across it, when the face the poor creature made it is impossible to describe, “phoo what do you call that?” “what do you call that?” I again asked the old man how old he was, “eight and twenty your honour, and so I am; oh I will spake no more, I will spake no more.” As a last effort to make him open his mouth, I said if you mean to put him overboard, mind have a good rope round him for perhaps he cannot swim. Terrified at the idea of being thrown overboard the poor fellow said “I cannot swim, oh, I cannot swim;” but as the brush again crossed his mouth, he uttered with his teeth closed, “I will spake no more, by J—s I will spake no more if you drown me.” Amid a roar of laughter two men tripped the handspike on which he sat and sent him backward into the sail where the bear was waiting to receive him; it was soon over, he escaped and stood by to see his shipmates share his fate. At the time of his being shaved he was not aware who Neptune was, when he found it out I could not get him to speak to me for some time; at length Irish good temper conquered, and we were friends again.
John Bechervaise, Thirty-six Years of Seafaring Life p.146-150
Long may King Neptune reign!
After I left HMS Southampton, the Navy instituted new fitness requirements and Ten Bellies was forced to leave the service. No one cried. Did I mention how mean he was?
I lived with Jacko in five different houses and he was my very best friend for a long, long time. I lost touch with him when I came to the States. If anyone knows his whereabouts, tell him I am trying to track him down.