Rum and Paddles: Baffling Traditions of the World’s Navies
Pollywogs, rum rations and naval days
The men and women who patrol the oceans of the world pay heed to a higher calling.
Their nations’ security is paramount, but other stranger motives bind them together. From the U.S. to Britain and Russia, the navies of the Western world carry on some mightily unusual practices—traditions that cut across national boundaries. Traditions tied up in the mystery and majesty of the ocean.
Some traditions emerged out of practical necessity only to fade with the advent of modern technology. Others emerged in the nuclear age. Others are discouraged by military officials for, let’s say, the obvious reasons.
But what motivates sailors to dress up like Roman god Neptune or smear themselves with food? Beats us. From the reasonable to the highly unreasonable, here are a few examples.
Order of Neptune
“There was a tunnel you had to crawl through that was full of garbage,” my father says. “If you were on someones shit list, they would pull you aside and do other things to do. They’d enclose you in something that was full of garbage. They’d paddle you. To really humiliate you, they’d make you kiss the Royal Baby.”
My father is a former Navy petty officer, second class. He’s recalling his time as an aviation technician during the Vietnam War. He’s describing a strange initiation ritual practiced by many Western navies.
This tradition, known as the line-crossing ceremony, takes place when a new group of sailors crosses the equator for the first time.
The specifics vary, but in general it’s a chance for the veteran sailors—those who’ve already crossed the line—to initiate new sailors into the mysteries of the deep.
The ship comes to a halt. The older crew known as “shellbacks” set up an impromptu Court of Neptune. It is here they bring the younger crew—the slimy pollywogs—before the Court of Neptune to be put through trials before graduating to shellback status.
A running theme is frat-house humiliation and impossible tasks. My father’s personal experience involved a lot of garbage.
He described blowing water off the deck of the boat and crawling before shellbacks dressed up as King Neptune and his court. This court is variable, but often included the likes of Davy Jones, the Sea Hag and the Royal Baby. The Baby is typically played by a girthy shellback with a greased belly, ready for the lips of any pollywog deemed in need of punishment.
The roots of the line-crossing ceremony are unclear, but historical records point to its use in the early 18th century as a way for veteran sailors to scrutinize new sailors and make sure they would endure the brutal conditions of ocean life. Men were beaten, shaved and their faces covered in pitch. They were thrown overboard to see if they could swim.
Today’s line-crossing ceremony—while less brutal—is still controversial. Since the 1980s, the Navy has taken steps to prevent hazing on its vessels. Part of this process involved formalizing and toning down the equatorial ritual.
Garbage is in less use today—it’s been replaced by disgusting foods.
A tradition that once involved spanking and kissing the greased-up belly of a bloated midshipman is now voluntary and more lighthearted. Reports of eggs and condiments sauces, coffee grounds and noodles rubbed in ‘wogs faces and bodies are common. Still disgusting, yes, but less physically and emotionally demanding.
Splicing the mainbrace
Drinking is another grand tradition of the sailing life—one that has fallen out of favor in recent decades.
There was a time when the order “splice the mainbrace” was met with the eager mouths of sailors, ready to take a ration of rum. The mainbrace is the largest and heaviest piece of rigging on a ship. During combat, warships often targeted an enemy vessel’s mainbrace, and when it was damaged it could not be repaired easily.
In fact, splicing—or repairing—the mainbrace was a pain in the ass, strenuous work meant only for the most adept seaman. Those who could do it were often rewarded with an extra ration of rum. Over time, an order to splice the mainbrace came to mean taking a shot.
But why was there alcohol on ships at all? Simple. Long sea voyages are unpleasant, especially in the days before sanitation and germ theory.
Sailors needed fresh water to stay alive on the open seas for months at a time. But barrels of fresh water stored on a ship often went bad. Mix alcohol into the water, however, and the water stayed fresh, with the bonus of keeping the sailors motivated.
In 1862, an act of Congress prohibited the use of rum rations on U.S. Navy vessels. In order to soothe the tempers of the wronged sailors, Congress authorized a payment of five cents a day to any man eligible for the ration.
But some navies kept up the rum tradition.
The British Royal Navy didn’t ban booze for another hundred years. The daily tot—as it came to be known in Britain—ended on July 31, 1970. Teetotalers argued that it was no longer appropriate to issue alcohol to sailors who worked with delicate and intricate machines. The Royal Navy had changed.
They day was met with much melodrama. Some sailors wore black armbands while they waited in line for their last taste of free rum on what become known as Black Tot Day. Sailors held mock funerals for the tot. Pipers played. They buried tiny coffins at sea.
All of this despite the inclusion of an extra can of beer in their rations to make up for the lost tot.
Other countries took longer to eliminate the rum ration. The Canadians held out another two years, ending rum rations in 1972. New Zealand continued issuing rum to sailors until 1990. But few took it as hard as the British did in 1970.
Other odd currents
Not all of the traditions are so lighthearted and filled with booze. Some are darker.
The British Royal Navy maintains an antiquated system that allows orders to be issued directly by the prime minister under a very specific set of circumstances.
They’re called the letters of last resort.
Upon taking office, each new prime minister pens these letters by hand. The letters are buried in a safe within a safe resting in the belly of the Royal Navy’s four Vanguard-class submarines. These submarines carry nuclear ICBMs.
The letters detail the prime minister’s orders regarding the use of nuclear force in the event that Britain is destroyed by atomic bombardment, the chain of command severed and the submarines left adrift in the sea without a nation or a leader.
By contrast, American officers bury their old lives at sea when they move from whites to khakis. The newly promoted sailor takes the trappings of his or her old life, puts them in a box and drops them in the ocean.
Many countries set aside a day to celebrate their navy, usually a day of a great naval victory. Russia is no different. The festivities take place on the last Sunday of July to commemorate the Battle of Gangut in 1714, the Russian navy’s first major victory.
What’s odd, however, is that Neptune is a big part of the celebration, just as he is during the line crossing ceremony. But the Russian Orthodox Church has pressured the navy into reducing the amount of pagan elements during an ostensibly Christian holiday.
If they think that’s bad, they should take a look at the Royal Baby.