15 July 2016
0˚30.0’N, 170˚09.5’W
Ship Heading: 185 ˚
Speed: 2 knots
Distance: 1491.5
Sunny and sailing full speed ahead under the four lowers to PIPA
Location: The Southern Hemisphere!

 On July 15 at approximately 0430 Hawaiian Time, the Robert C Seamans and its crew did something very meaningful according to nautical lore and tradition. Having completed the northern hemisphere leg of our voyage, our GPS coordinates registered 0° latitude for a brief moment before we entered into the southern hemisphere. In other words, we crossed over the equator, the invisible line that stretches over 25,000 miles around Earth bisecting it horizontally. From the reaction of the professional staff on board, it was clear that “crossing over” held special significance. Being inexperienced in such matters, I figured that I would do some research to find out just how significant.

While sailing these days comes with a fair amount of risk, the high seas were a downright dangerous place in ancient times. Treacherous storms and mysterious calms were a constant threat and more difficult to predict, particularly in the tropics where there is often little warning. This was compounded near the equator where drinking water was scarce and the shelf life of food was much shorter. With their lives already in potential peril, sailors noticed that things start to go backwards after crossing the equator: seasons were reversed, the sun’s arc was observed in a different location, and storms spiraled in opposite directions. European sailors used to relying on the North Star for navigation lost sight of it in the southern hemisphere. Things got downright mysterious and confusing.


king neptune statue
King Neptune statue by Rob Brewer via Wikimedia Commons

For an already superstitious lot, it made sense to initiate a ceremony that would appease the higher powers and provide the added protection necessary for a safe crossing. Ancient records indicate that, as early as 1529, such a tradition took shape involving a mock royal court held over by a figure representing King Neptune (Roman God of the Sea). Those sailors crossing the equator for the first time were labeled as “pollywogs” in more recent times and were brought before King Neptune to be granted permission to cross. Some records indicate that before permission was granted  “pollywogs” were lathered and shaved, had their hair cut, and were finally dunked in a tub of seawater. King Neptune would then present each “shellback” (again, a more recent term) with a certificate exempting them from similar treatment during future crossings. Understandably, sailors treasured this certificate and believed that it ensured all aboard safe passage.


nick stands with other members of SEA crew
Among the visiting scientists (from left: Henry, Chrissy, me, and Adrienne), I got off easy.

Now, I can neither confirm nor deny that anything remotely resembling this tradition took place aboard RCS following our crossing. What I can say is that I and other “pollywogs” have gained a more appropriate respect for the significance of crossing over the equator. Oh, and I’ll also concede that several individuals including myself made voluntary offerings to King Neptune of treasured locks. In my case, those that know me will agree that Neptune may have been left wanting.

Information about tradition of crossing the equator taken from The Ocean Almanac by Robert Hendrickson and Don’t Shoot the Albatross by Jonathan Eyers