​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.


5 thoughts 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

    1. Ahoy! I crossed about 15 months before you did, but in the Java Sea, SE of Singapore, aboard USS TICONDEROGA (CVS-14). There are many fond memories. And congratulations to you on being golden.

    2. Crossing the Line at the Greenwich Meridian, and being initiated. would make you a Emerald Shellback. A Golden Shellback is one who has been initiated and has crossed the Equator at the International Date Line.

  2. I crossed the line in 1968, aboard the U.S.S. Bennington, CVS 20. The “Ritual” was considerably different!
    We came before the Royal Judge, who pronounced us guilty. Kissed the Royal Babys belly, crawled through the garbage chute. were put into a coffin with 3 day old plate scrapings, The Royal Barber, etc, etc. etc, all while crawling on hands and knees. You were forbidden to look up. All the while being “flogged” with Shellaleighs. At the end you went into a tank set up, full of seawater and dosed with sea locater dye! You came out and was washed down with fire hoses, a Shellback!!

    Yes, A Golden Shellback crosses the 180th Meridian where it intersects 00 Latitude!

  3. My ex-husband was honorably discharged in June, 1983 after serving 4 years. I met him two months later and only 20 yrs old when i married him 7 months later…He sailed on the USS Kitty Hawk CV-63. He sailed the WestPac. He had photos of himself as a pollywog being initiated crossing the Equator. He had been flogges with a firehose, sittin in a huge pot full of food going bad, tarred and feathered which was my fave pic. He’s hungover but grinning from ear to ear in his underwear. I never forgot his stories about his adventures.

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