Baptism at sea: a navy tribute to Neptune’s Arctic realm
“The sailor is a superstitious, traditional creature and has been for as long as there have been sailors”
It’s hard to tell if there’s a grin or a scowl on the gnarled face of Davy Jones, as he paces before a crowd of sailors gathered on the flight deck of HMCS Charlottetown.
“Are ye ready folks?!” croaks the undead old salt, who has boarded the Canadian warship as a herald of the Sea King Neptune.
“ARRR!” yell the sailors—currently called tadpoles—and the slew of them start singing the theme song to the Nickelodeon cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants.
The ship’s bell then chimes a half a dozen times. As Eye of the Tiger plays over a loudspeaker, the swashbuckling herald orders all to “make way, for his glorious oceanic majesty, Neptunus Rex.”
By this point there’s smoke escaping from the ship’s aircraft hangar and King Neptune, Queen Amphitrite and their royal court of fishes and bears are rolling out from under the hangar’s hydraulic door.
This is what happens when a Canadian navy ship crosses the Arctic Circle—as HMCS Charlottetown did on Aug. 29, while heading to Nuuk, Greenland for gas at the end of the Canadian Armed Forces’ annual sovereignty exercise, Operation Nanook.
A tribute to the sea king
Tradition surrounding the “sailor’s baptism” could harken back to the time of Phoenicians and Vikings—but in Canada crossing-the-line ceremonies likely date to the 1700s and are most akin to French and Royal Navy traditions for passing over significant lines of longitude and latitude.
The ceremony ties in seafaring lore and requires a ship’s company to pay tribute to Neptune’s court before passing into his realm.
Crossings of the Antarctic Circle, the International Date Line, the prime meridian and the equator all warrant similar ceremonies.
This day, sailors on board HMCS Charlottetown spare no theatrics for their version of the age-old play.
“All hail, King Neptune,” the tadpoles roar.
For the purpose of the ceremony, a “tadpole” is a sailor who has yet to cross the Arctic Circle, while those who have already made the crossing are now “bluenosers.”
Were the crew crossing the equator, they might be called “pollywogs,” and those who had already done the trek would be called “shellbacks.”
A crew that cleans up well
“Good afternoon, Charlottetown,” calls King Neptune, who is actually the ship’s coxswain, the chief petty officer first class. A sailor in a woman’s red winter dress coat plays Davy Jones.
Charlottetown’s commander, Nathan Decicco, presents his crew to the king of the sea and asks that the 200 sailors aboard be welcomed over the northern line.
But becoming part of the sea king’s court means the crew will first have to meet with Neptune’s royal barbers, doctors and police officers, who will whip the “unclean” sailor tadpoles into courtly shape.
So the crew—largely dressed in outlandish getups—line up to see the doctor, taking a pill that is really a Corn Pop coated in something spicy, followed by a syringe of liquid syrup that tasted a bit like fruit juice and vinegar.
The barber gives each crew member a clean shave, using salty whipped cream to cut the sting from his razor’s dull, tinfoil blade.
Neptune’s royal police then finished off the cleansing with a rapid dunk of each tadpole into one of two kiddie pools.
The script for the ceremony singles out a handful of the ship’s crew, including the executive officer, or second-in-command, who is charged with going first through the cleansing for not keeping his ship clean. The weapons officer, called by Neptune “man of noise and smoke and powder,” is ordered to act like a chicken.
All in good fun
Perhaps the most amazing part of witnessing the Charlottetown’s Arctic Circle ceremony was watching a ship full of grown mariners forsake their military formalities and completely buy into the seafaring tradition.
“It’s something that people were looking forward to from the start of the trip,” said Keegan Dawson, chief petty officer second class, who, 20 years into his naval career, has now crossed the Arctic Circle three times. “It may seem kind of silly, but the fact that you’re a special group of people that have done this separates you … stuff like this brings ships’ companies together.”
Dawson filled the supporting role of Queen Amphitrite in the crossing-the-line play organized by a committee of sailors from across the ranks.
To be clear, no one pressured him to dress up like a mermaid.
“Once upon a time I don’t think you had much of a choice, but nowadays it’s all voluntary,” he said. “We want people to be excited for it … the intention is strictly fun.”
In fact, the ship sailed out of its way in order to cross the Arctic Circle. Centuries ago any crew concerned for the wrath of Neptune could have held their ship hostage until the captain sailed his vessel over the line.
“The sailor is a superstitious, traditional creature and has been for as long as there have been sailors,” Dawson said. At one time the ceremony could have been religious, as many sailors believed the sea to have supernatural powers.
Where some histories show the line’s crossing was at times treated more as a tribunal than a baptism, the script used by Charlottetown saw one of Neptune’s rhymes specifically ban hazing in his court.
“For you must know that any craft who’d fain cross the great sea lord’s special royal domain must pay tribute to that King Neptune’s wishes and be received by mermaids, bears and fishes.”
That’s a passage from a book titled Naval Customs, Traditions and Usage, written by a retired U.S. navy vice-admiral, and cited in a Canadian naval manual of customs and traditions used to explain the history of the crossing-the-line ceremony.
“Ceremonies like this show your roots as a sailor,” Dawson said, while comparing the event to family traditions. “It identifies who you are and where you’re from.”
New recruit are always briefed on the history and traditions of the Royal Canadian Navy.
After the ceremony, sailors are given a certificate marking them as bluenosers in Neptune’s court, along with a laminated card to keep with them wherever they go.
“I carry mine in my wallet, because if you don’t have your card, you have to do the ceremony again, as an initiate,” Dawson said.
That goes for everyone except the ship’s commander, who isn’t spared by Neptune, even if the commander is already a bluenoser.
“Regardless of whether the captain has never crossed the line or crossed it 100 times, he’s bringing the unclean tadpoles into Neptune’s realm. As such he has to do the ceremony,” Dawson said.
As the soggy crew line up to kiss a cod and get their well-earned pass cards from the royal scribe, Commander Decicco takes his own bath at the hands of Neptune’s cops and bears.
“Welcome one, welcome all who hath endured my wrath, and to you, my dear captain, cross the line you may pass,” Neptune cries.
With this tribute paid to the King of the Sea, the frigate and its crew could now finish their month-long northern deployment and head home to Halifax.
To mark the crossing, the vessel’s heavy steel bow ring—called a bullring—will be painted blue for the coming year, effectively christening the 134-metre Canadian warship as a bluenoser too.