The Shellback Ceremony

Greek God Poseidon or Neptune in roman mythology
High ranking members of the crew and those who have been Shellbacks the longest dress up in elaborate costume and each play the part of King Neptune’s court. Cristian Baitg / Getty Images

After I wrote about the various unofficial certificates members of the Navy (and other service branches) are able to acquire, I got a couple of messages asking for a little more detail on the Shellback Ceremony – mainly, “what all happens?”  Well, there are many descriptions of the ceremony across the internet, as well as videos on sites such as YouTube. One can even find photos and videos on Facebook pages kept by various ships (such as CVN-70 (Carl Vinson):  Welcome New Shellbacks).

But, keeping in mind that each ship does things differently (and I’m referring to US Navy & Coast Guard ships – I have not met anyone that became a Shellback on an Army Ship, and civilian ships [such as cruise ships] do things their own way as well) the basic structure goes something like this:

Traditionally, the day before the crossing, King Neptune (aka Neptunus Rex) notifies the ship – either by sending his Herald aboard, or some other method such as a radio message - that he intends to exercise authority over his domain and to judge charges that have been brought against Pollywogs (charges such as they are only posing as sailors, or that they haven’t paid proper homage to the god of the sea).

These days, many ships hold talent shows the night before (one of which is the Queen Competition), with the understanding that the winners will be given an easier time the following day - dancing, songs, skits, poetry recitation, as well as contests such as who can do the most push-ups or sit-ups/crunches.

After the show, Pollywogs receive a subpoena from Davy Jones to stand before the court the next day and answer to charges brought against them by the Shellbacks.

High ranking members of the crew and those who have been Shellbacks the longest dress up in elaborate costume and each play the part of King Neptune’s court.

For instance, the ship’s captain might play the part of King Neptune himself. Alternately, it might be the oldest shellback on board.  Members of King Neptune’s Royal court generally includes:

His Queen – Her Highness Amphitrite (this is usually the winner of the previous day’s Queen Contest, and the only Wog in the court – and the final individual to become shellback, running through everything last).

Davy Jones – His Majesty’s Royal First Assistant

The Royal Baby – Everyone loves to kiss a baby, right? Well, in this case, pollywogs are required to kiss the baby’s belly.

The Royal Scribe – consider him the Court Stenographer, if you will. Sometimes Davy Jones is also the Royal Scribe

The Royal Doctor – Oh, the potions he brings…

The Royal Barber – One must be made presentable for the King… (relax - these days it’s a wood razor)

Depending upon the tradition of the ship, there may also be the Royal Herald, the Royal Navigator, the Royal Chaplain, the Royal Judge, Attorneys and other personages. (this is, after all, supposed to be fun). The remaining participating Shellbacks dress up as pirates (or beach bums, as it suits them), and “maintain order” of the pollywogs for the duration of King Neptune’s visit.

After breakfast, which is made special for the Pollywogs to eat (have you ever had coffee made from sea water? Yuck!), the Pollywogs get into the Uniform of the day – usually wearing their clothes inside out and / or backwards - and perform a variety of activities which might involve crawling across the deck (or crawl through a tube) strewn with objectionable debris (quite often consisting of that uneatable breakfast that was served to the Pollywogs) on their way to present themselves to King Neptune.

Prior to appearing before King Neptune, various members of his court may have specific tasks for various pollywogs. Such as the Royal Doctor making sure that a wog is properly treated for, say bad breath (and let me say, if he didn’t have bad breath before – after drinking that potion, he will).

Or a visit to the Royal Barber.

Next, the Pollywogs kneel before the King and kiss the royal baby’s belly (according to some accounts is the baby’s belly covered in grease – I heard of one instance where Chinese Mustard was used. On my first ship, the Royal Baby had a cherry in his navel).

Then accused appears before King Neptune, who sits in judgment (or, if there is one, the Royal Judge handles most of the appearances and hands off to King Neptune the “special cases”) and pronounces any “punishment” to be handed out.

Finally, the Pollywogs take a royal bath in a pool of sea water (or salt-water shower via fire hoses) before being declared Shellbacks.

Comparatively, the initiation rites in today's modern navies are far less stringent than of the past; whereas before the events of the ceremony were meant to be physically challenging and even painful for new sailors to accomplish, today those challenges are strictly voluntary and are reduced for health and safety reasons. The ceremony is now seen more as entertainment, building unit cohesion and a sense of shared identity, and for morale boosting than anything else.

For the curious, I became a Shellback aboard FF-1070 (Downes) on the 9th of January, 1984.