Pollywogs, rotting food scraps and a visit from King Neptune. You'd be forgiven for wondering just what is going on with the crossing the Equator ceremonies onboard the Volvo Ocean Race boats in the last 24 hours.
Well, it's a long-standing maritime tradition stretching back some 400 years and was first used by the British navy in order to build morale and to create bonds between crew during long voyages.
Sailors who've not yet crossed from one hemisphere to another are called 'pollywogs', the scientific name for tadpoles, and are judged by King Neptune, the ancient Roman god of the seas for whatever crimes they might have committed during the voyage. They're then 'punished' – usually in the most disgusting way possible, regardless of social class or rank.
By 1832, the tradition was well underway and famous Charles Darwin had his mouth stuffed with pitch and paint before being dumped into a basin of water while tied to a plank.
"We have crossed the Equator, & I have undergone the disagreeable operation of being shaved. They lathered my face & mouth with pitch and paint, & scraped some of it off with a piece of roughened iron hoop. A signal being given, I was tilted head over heels into the water, where two men received me & ducked me. Most of the others were treated much worse, dirty mixtures being put in their mouths & rubbed on their faces," he wrote in his diary. Perhaps such brutish behaviour contributed to his theory that man descended from more primitive beings!
While lacking in paint and pitch, Volvo Ocean Race crews are no less creative. Flying fish have been stewing with food scraps for days in the tropical heat and as you'll see the photos and videos beamed back from the boats, this mixture is then spread all over the victims. Stu Bannatyne, one of the sailors with the highest number of Equator crossings in the fleet, was tied to the foredeck of New Zealand Endeavour in 1993 for hours on his first crossing, probably just to rinse him clean after his previous punishment.
Even though the ceremony involves fetid muck and a few dodgy haircuts, it's all clean fun that helps bring the new kids into the Volvo Ocean Race, and mark a huge step in their offshore careers with a long-standing tradition!