84. Crossing The Line

No, not a post about inappropriate actions or language ….. but – as of about now – pretty much everyone on this edition of the Clipper Race (even tail-end-Charlie Imagine Your Korea) are now sailing in the Southern Hemisphere having crossed the Equator – Crossing The Line. They will not be back in the Northern Hemisphere this DECADE! And some form of suitable ceremony will have been carried out in every yacht of the Clipper Fleet.

A Dare To Lead crew’s Crossing The Line Shirt
Dare To Lead Skipper Guy Waites as King Neptune and the Horse Latitudes – get it???

Its quite an event in any mariners career or time at sea and I have been fortunate enough to do it 10 times – twice in the Pacific, twice in the Atlantic, four times in the Indian Ocean and twice in the South China Sea/Java Sea! Somewhere in an old box I have a rather faded certificate, first signed back in 1983, to prove it ………. signed (obviously!) by King Neptune himself!

No one is quite sure of the origins of the associated “Crossing The Line Ceremony” but sailors rarely need much of an excuse to let their hair down. Crossing the Line and its associated rituals had certainly become a well established tradition in the Royal Navy as long ago as the eighteenth century. In HMS ENDEAVOR, under the command of Captain James Cook, a seaman called Joseph Banks described how the crew drew up a list of everyone on board, including cats and dogs, and interrogated them as to whether they had crossed the equator when sailing in the Pacific in 1768. If they had not, they had to choose to give up their allowance of wine for four days (NOT Likely methinks!) or undergo a ducking ceremony in which they were ducked three times into the ocean.

I’ve written about Robert Fitzroy before (see Blog 23: The weather theme continued ….. but spare a thought and a prayer this Sunday for Abhilash Tomy, published 23 September 2018) but when he was Captain of HMS BEAGLE he suggested the practice had developed from earlier ceremonies in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian vessels passing notable headlands. Fitzroy thought it was beneficial to morale. During the second voyage of HMS BEAGLE, on 17 February 1832 one of the first crew members to be “initiated” was one Charles Darwin (of naturalist, geologist and biologist fame) who noted in his diary that he was led up on deck by “four of King Neptune’s constables”, as “buckets of water were thundered all around.” Darwin was then “placed on a plank, which could be easily tilted up into a large bath of water. They then lathered my face and mouth with pitch and paint, & scraped some of it off with a piece of roughened iron hoop – a signal being given I was tilted head over heels into the water, where two men received me and ducked me. – at last, glad enough, I escaped. Most of the others were treated much worse, dirty mixtures being put into their mouths and rubbed on their faces. The whole ship was a shower bath & water was flying about in every direction: of course not one person, even the Captain, got clear of being wet through.” There is a detailed account of the ceremony onboard HMS BLOSSOM (we don’t name our ships like we used too! ….. thankfully!!) written somewhat earlier, in 1825, and its clear from my own memories that it hasn’t changed much in the intervening 160 years or so!

No digital cameras or mobile phones back in 1983 so the next 4 photos took a bit of digging out ……..

Crossing the line 19832019-10-01_233921
HMS Falmouth crossing the line in the Atlantic in 1983 on passage to the Falkland Islands. Top and bottom left – King Neptune’s Court. Top right – King Neptune arrives. I think he was actually the Chief Shipwright or the Chief Stoker! Bottom right – the Captain (Commander Alastair Ross RN) shares a welcome drink with King Neptune.

And if you want a glimpse into what might – or might not – have happened onboard the Big Blue Boat then I can do no better than point you in the direction of Skipper Ian Wiggin’s Day 16 blog on the official Clipper Race website http://www.clipperroundtheworld.com

Meanwhile, here’s a 1922 silent movie blast-from-the-past crossing the line ceremony onboard HMS HOOD ….. like I said, nothing much has changed ……


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