Oops! I’m running behindhere!
Let’s start with the crossing of the equator.
If you’ve never crossed the equator while on a cruse, you need to go right out and book something that will get you this experience, because it is unique.
Lore of old has it that King Neptune controls the seas, and only he can declare a ship and its crew seaworthy to cross the equator. Only he has the authority to grant Shellback status to those former Pollywogs – people who have never crossed the equator before.
Ships of old had elaborate ceremonies for crossing the equator. Military vessels had traditions bordering on hazing that they put the pollywogs through upon their first crossing of the equator. Some of these involved forcing them to crawl through all manner of noxious materials, including engine oil and garbage from the galley, in order to prove their seaworthiness. After enduring these indignities, they were made to kiss the bosin’s belly before their “hazing” ordeal was complete.
Of course, today we have become more civilized, and these ceremonies have been toned down even on military vessels. On modern cruise ships today, the ceremony for passengers is pretty much one of watching the crew’s initiation into the order of Shellbacks. And even their ordeal is nothing like it was in days gone by. In fact, today it is actually a fun experience for them to go through.
At a crossing of the equator ceremony, all crew members who have never made a crossing before participate. The event is held at the aft pool area and they are paraded before King Neptune, who lists their various crimes (things like a cabin steward who maybe “hoarded” pillow chocolates, or a front office person accused of dispensing laxatives in place of seasickness medication) and then sentences them to be punished for their actions. The “punishment” involves being “slimed” with all manner of leftover food from the galley – things like spaghetti, lettuce and other slime-like items of unknown origin, in a variety of colors. But, before they can be “slimed” they must first “kiss the fish.” Good lord, this would be the hardest part for me. This fish that they must kiss has been baking in the hot sun, for probably a good hour before the ceremony. It is clearly the biggest, ugliest looking thing that the cook and his assistants could find – often an ugly monkfish, but in this case a large tuna – that would be the last thing anyone in their right mind would want to get near to, let alone kiss.
Sometimes King Neptune wants a long, lingering kiss -- and all the passengers lining both side of the aft deck will chant “kiss the fish,” “kiss the fish” – over and over again, as the poor condemned pollywog will pucker his lips and hold his breath until he is practically turning blue. Then he will be turned over to the doctors and nurses for his “sliming.” Some deck officers were made to wear these large rubber buoyancy suits. Not only will they be slimed, but their suits will be unzipped as well, with all manner of garbage being poured inside.
Then they are turned over to the captain and senior officers. King Neptune will ask – shall they be thrown into the pool to sink or left on deck to stink? The officers will turn a thumbs up or a thumbs down to determine their fate. If they are left on deck, they have to sit there, baking in the sun, until the ceremony is complete, only after which they will be tossed into the pool with their luckier comrades who got to wash off right after their own “sliming.”
The whole crossing the equator ceremony is done in good fun and it is clear that passengers and crew members alike enjoy it. It is harmless fun and no one is placed at any risk of harm (unlike years gone by).
Passengers begin staking out their spots on the aft deck hours before the ceremony begins, and probably a good 80% of the passengers are in attendance for the ceremony itself – making that aft deck a very crowded place.
Commemorative tee-shirts are sold, and this process was a sporting event in and of itself. Apparently, Holland America gets the supply that Seattle sends them, and this supply was far from adequate. Once the tee-shirts were put out onto the table (along with lots of other designs) it became literally a feeding frenzy with everyone trying to snag one. The store clerks were helpless to stop people from grabbing them before they were “officially” on sale. The inadequate supply was sold out within minutes, with several near fistfights breaking out among passengers. Of course, this was quite entertaining to watch. Personally, I think they should have been raffled off for charity, especially since the supply available was nowhere near enough to satisfy the people who wanted to purchase one.
Getting photos and video was also a form of blood sport. As I tried to maneuver to a good spot to fire off a couple of quick photos, a woman taking video behind me became quite perturbed. She actually kicked me in the ass when I got into her shot. If she wasn’t somewhat elderly, I might have been tempted to toss her into the pool. But I minded my manners and simply moved out of her way after sweetly thanking her for her “courtesy.”
Other people around the pool got upset because passengers in wheelchairs and scooters claimed prime spots directly in front of the pool, and situated their power chairs in such a way that no one could possibly walk in front of them. I saw one person almost drop his camera into the pool trying, before he gave up and moved in behind the person in the wheelchair. Of course, it was those wheelchair passengers who clearly had the best view and the best photo ops. The rest of us got some pictures, but ours had numerous heads, hands, faces, etc. in our shots. I even saw people snap at the “official” HAL photographers and videographers who were trying to film the event, and even going so far as to try and push them out of their way. God, is getting a clear photo that important? Frankly, I’d rather just enjoy the event.
At the end of the ceremony, the tuna was left in place so that passengers who wished to get photos kissing it could do so. By now, the ice placed around it had all melted since that thing had been out in the hot sun baking for a couple of hours. I could only imagine the stink. I can’t help but wonder – in this day and age of the cruise lines cutting back on food expenditures, will that thing do double duty as the featured entrée on a future dinner menu? I know I won’t be ordering tuna anytime soon!
So, despite the crowds and even the pushing and shoving for tee-shirts and photos, the Crossing the Equator Ceremony was great fun. We all received a certificate in our cabins later on this evening commemorating our conversion from Pollywogs to Shellbacks, and confirming that we have been found seaworthy by King Neptune himself. This is the second time I’ve crossed the equator on a HAL ship (the first being on the Amsterdam in 2006), but I doubt I’ll ever tire of enjoying all of the pageantry and good fun of an equator crossing – as long as I don’t have to “kiss the fish,” of course.