A sailor’s life – 9. Crossing the Line
“All the traditional ceremonies and good-natured horseplay were scrupulously adhered to, and some twenty schoolboys and five adults were duly dosed, lathered, shaved, hosed and then toppled backwards into a huge canvas tank of sea-waters,” wrote young Lord Frederic Spencer Hamilton, homeward bound from Cape Town aboard a Royal Mail Steam packet ship in 1910.
For hundreds of years sailors have marked a boy’s first crossing of “the Line” between the northern and southern oceans with a ritual ducking in the sea. Rope would be frayed for wigs, and lockers and stores raided for robes and crown. Then Neptune and his queen, a dame with large loose bosoms and ill-concealed stubble dabbed in flour, would appear over the side of the ship in mid ocean and advance on any so called “first trippers” to lather, dose and dunk them. At the end of their baptism, the new boys were presented with the right to sail the seven seas, and could look forward to being on the delivering end of the brutalities next trip.
The tradition had flourished on passenger ships, because it broke the monotony of long idle days for strangers bored with each other and themselves and writing letters. The ghastly Lord Fred was obviously a hoot, recording riotous goings-on apparently initiated by choice spirits among the saloon crowd, with him playing Neptune “in an airy costume of fish-scales”. A star of the South African music hall had played the queen, he wrote, with a flow of risqué gags that had their audience in stitches.
“Just as we crossed the Line, the ship was hailed from the sea, her name and destination were ascertained, and she was peremptorily ordered to heave to, Neptune naturally imagining that he was still dealing with sailing ships. The engines were at once stopped, and Neptune, with his Queen, his Doctor, his Barber, his Sea Bears and the rest of his Court, all in their traditional get-up, made their appearance on the upper deck, to the abject terror of some of the little children, who howled dismally.
“The proceedings were terminated by Neptune and his entire Court following the neophytes into the tank, and I am afraid that we induced some half-dozen male spectators to accompany us into the tank rather against their will, one old German absolutely fuming with rage at the unprecedented liberty that was being taken with him.”
From: Here, There and Everywhere by Lord Frederic Hamilton