​What is a Shellback in The Navy & How Are Individuals Initiated?

The Navy has its share of ceremonies and traditions that date back centuries in the western arena of

the globe. The traditions followed by the Navy also find its mention in various mythologies. The

ceremonies are often inspired by folklore and are performed as an act of paying tribute to King

Neptune, the God of Sea. A particular seafaring ceremony is known as the ‘Line-Crossing Ceremony’

which is performed with glory and boisterousness to celebrate the feat of the mariners who have

crossed the Equator for the first time. According to the colloquial terms allotted in the Navy, the

mariners are divided into Shellbacks and Pollywogs. This article will shed insights on what a

Shellback is and how Navy men become initiated.

What is a Shellback?

The line-crossing ceremony is conducted as a sort of admittance into the ‘Court of Neptune.’ This

ritual is also a way of appreciating the prowess of the mariners who are able to brave the

uncertainties and dangers of the sea. A seaman who is relatively new or has not crossed the equator

is termed as a Pollywog. To be more precise with the colloquial term, the inexperienced mariners are

termed as ‘Slimy Pollywogs’ who are not yet adept with the ways of the sea. On the other hand, the

seamen who have crossed the Equator are initiated as ‘Trusty Shellbacks’ into the court of Neptune.

The ceremony involves lots of physical activities that can be painful and tiring. The initiation is

designed in a way to highlight the fact that the Navy Shellbacks should be able to endure pain and

deal with it like a proud mariner. The ceremony also instills a feeling of camaraderie, fun, and

brotherhood among fellow seamen. According to the activities of the ritual, a Shellback is anointed as

a Son or Daughter of King Neptune.

According to the ceremony, a senior officer who is a Trusty Shellback, will dress as King Neptune and

call upon his subjects to initiate charges. Apart from the physical endurance activities, the ceremony

includes elaborate and royal costume plays together with loads of fun and jesting as well.

How Do Seamen Become Initiated As A Shellback?

  • The Shellbacks are not simply tagged or named as soon as they cross the Equator. There is a big

initiation ceremony that involves a lot of rituals. This segment will give you an idea of the elaborate

protocols and activities that take place during the initiation ceremony.

Here is a step by step procedure that commonly takes place during the initiation of a Shellback:

  • Before the ship approaches the Equator, a royal court is arranged that will host the people of

Neptune kingdom. Any of the senior officers of the Navy or the captain of the ship comes to the

court dressed as King Neptune and brings along Queen Neptune, royal children, and other

courtiers of the kingdom.

  • The Pollywogs who are yet to prove their worth as seafaring doyens, perform fun activities to

impress the King and his courtiers, like a song, dance, drama, poetry, to name a few.

Then starts the physical endurance activities for the Pollywogs who are in line to become

Shellbacks.

  • They will be fed with very spicy, tangy, and deplorable food after breakfast. They will have to

appear in front of King Neptune who will pronounce certain activities for the Pollywogs like

jumping on sharp objects, lifting heavy objects, or pushing a peanut from bow to stern while crawling. This is what my grandfather Don McGrogan had to do.

  • A royal baby also accompanies King Neptune. Once the Pollywogs have satisfied the King

with their good performance, they will have to kiss the royal babies stomach which might be

smeared with any gooey substance.

  • The final mark of the ceremony involves the Pollywogs taking a dip into the seawater and

getting anointed as Shellbacks. The slimy Pollywogs finally get their Trusty Shellback titles

together with certificates.

Crewmen aboard the destroyer USS ARTHUR W. RADFORD (DD-968) participate in the traditional shellback initiation ceremony during exercise Unitas XXI. The shellback initiation takes place anytime a U.S. Navy ship cross the equator.

Shellback is not the only title that an experienced mariner can earn. The US Navy bestows another

impressive unofficial title to the mariners that show their seafaring prowess.

A Trusty Shellback is someone who has good experience on the sea and has crossed the Equator. A

Golden Shellback is bestowed on a mariner who has not only crossed the Equator but also crossed

the International Date Line.

The Navy has its share of rituals. These rituals are intended to increases the team spirit and motivate the mariners to outperform their own records. These rituals are a way to encourage camaraderie and instill a sense of pride among the Navy. Hopefully, this article has given you a sneak peek into the ways of life of a mariner.

One thought on “​What is a Shellback in The Navy & How Are Individuals Initiated?

  1. Fifty years ago (28 July 1972) I crossed the equator aboard USS LaSalle AGF-3. we crossed at the Greenwich Meridian (0 degree ) and became GOLDEN SHELLBACKS. Crossing the international Date Line is a differently named ritual

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