Rite of passage
Crossing the equator is a rite of passage that Navy men and women proudly go through. Navy News editor Clara Lock joins the 74th batch of Midshipmen as they make the journey from pollywog to shellback.
Story by Clara Lock
Photos by Jonathan Ryan
They haul us from our beds at five in the morning.
It concludes the series of ominous pipes that have been playing through the night – Pollywogs, we are coming to get you! – is the common refrain amidst menacing cackles and throaty laughs.
I am on board landing ship tank RSS Endeavour. It is the second leg on a six-week 74th Midshipman Sea Training Development/ 11th Military Domain Expert Course, and as the ship transits from Sulawesi to Singapore it will cross the equator.
So will we. Crossing the equator is a maritime tradition, a ritual that initiates new sailors, known as pollywogs, into the brethren. To do so we must complete a mini obstacle course that is meant to make us as dirty, smelly and uncomfortable as possible.
When we are done we will be known as honourable shellbacks, worthy of the seven seas.
It begins as soon as I enter the tank deck – a hundred midshipmen are already crouched on the floor, bare bodied and shivering in the spray of a fire hose that douses us all in water.
Various characters – Davy Jones and his pirates, the Royal Baby, King Neptune and his Queen – surround us, shouting and taunting.
I am apprehensive, but many shellbacks agree that the ceremony used to be worse. Over the past few days they have been swapping stories of swill, rotten eggs and ox blood being used in the ceremonies they have gone through.
“You’d better finish the piece of bread on your plate,” they tell me half-jokingly at dinner, “or it might come back to haunt you.”
But they all agree that crossing the equator is all in good fun, a shared experience that batch mates will laugh about – and grimace at – for a long time.
These days, pollywogs are luckier. I am told during the brief that all the food used in tonight’s ceremony will be fresh and edible – such as the dollop of baked beans that is poured onto the back of my neck while I am waiting for the obstacle course to start.
We make our way on all fours down to the well dock, where an obstacle course has been set up between two fast crafts, and slither on our bellies through a dark, sticky concoction. I make out the smell of coffee grinds and yong tau foo sweet sauce, while shellbacks douse us with flour and oil from above.
A cacophony of voices reverberates around the enclosed well dock. Groups of midshipmen belt out the Navy song, while other groups count out sit-ups and push-ups they are being made to do.
I reach a sea boat, which has been filled with a cold, grey, murky soup. It smells like tangerines and pepper, with vegetables floating on the surface. “Put your head in!” command the shellbacks around me.
It looks disgusting, so I try to slither through without submerging my face. The shellbacks are not pleased.
“Go again! Go again!” they holler. This repetition is par for the course during an equator crossing. Some of the midshipmen are made to crawl through the course up to eight times.
I count myself lucky having to only do it twice more, before I make it to the last obstacle, King Neptune and Queen Amphitrite. Together with two other midshipmen we entreat the Royal Court to forgive our maritime misdemeanors, including polluting the seas and eating sharks fin soup.
Then King Neptune raises his staff and anoints us. After two years and eight deployments in the Navy, this pollywog is now a proud shellback.
And yes, I will laugh about it later.