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image from the book The Brittle Sea

Crossing the Line.

The Lady Jane was making good progress into the first month of her voyage and had left Brazil with the crew in high spirits, not something reflected in her captain’s demeanour. His was dour and not at all enjoying the voyage. Nothing could shake him from his funk and he had a feeling of dread as the days of the voyage wore on.

It was Mr. Lee, the ship’s steward, who noticed the captain’s mood becoming sour as time went on and he decided that to keep his captain’s spirits up, he would organise the ship’s passing over the equator celebration. Lee was certain the newest recruit to the ship, cabin-boy Archie McPherson, would be game for the usual shenanigans associated with an equatorial crossing. Of course, the captain was an integral part of the celebration and this, Lee surmised, would lift the captain’s mood. Though only a lowly ship’s steward, Lee was an avid reader on all things nautical and knew well the line-crossing tradition. He had crossed the equator himself, the first time, when only a boy of sixteen and in his late thirties as he was now, he had crossed a number of times since the first. Lee sought the approval of the ceremony from the captain having asked first officer Mr. Archer his initial thoughts.

“I think it’s a splendid idea, Mr. Lee. The captain will not disapprove, I assure you.”

Lee determined to seek approval from the captain during the evening meal, his hope being that the captain, surrounded by his officers, would not want to look foolish or mean spirited in front of his officers. He was rewarded with a smile from Blackmore and an approval of the ceremony.

It had long been a tradition in both military and merchant navies that crossing the equator was worth a celebration.

On deck, near the ship’s stern, David James, in all his cobbled together regalia, sat on his throne, a bench placed on top of a few packing cases, waiting for his Queen. He didn’t have long to wait before a door opened from the superstructure and out walked, and stumbled, George Nance, the Bosun from Cornwall.

“About time, George,” James said playfully. “Why is it kings have to always wait for their queens? What took you so long?”

Nance glared at the first officer. “These,” he said, tugging away at the top half of a corset.

“Where did you get such a well-fitting ladies’ corset, Mr. Nance?” David James was becoming enamoured of his role and was feeling playful at the expense of his embarrassed Bosun.

“Mr. Lee, sir, and begging your pardon, I don’t ask another man where he gets his unmentionables from… or why he has them. I do as I’m told.”

James could see the big Cornishman was not happy in his role as Queen to James’ King Neptune and tried to ease the poor man’s distress by diverting his attention. He knew the one thing Nance loved to do was recount the tales of his time in the Royal Navy. “Who played your king and queen when you crossed the line, George?”

George stop fiddling with his corset and beamed at his first office. “That be my captain and the ship’s doc. That was after Alexandria on the old Superb. She was a fine ship. We had bombarded Alexandria, trying to keep the canal open, from those Urabi’s trying to seize control. It wasn’t long after that we sailed south, and I did my first crossing. I were only a brat of a boy, but after that I was promoted to stoker. Never looked back.”

“Well, George, it’s now down to us to make this boy’s first crossing as memorable as yours. So, stop fiddling with your corset and we can get on with the job in hand. What do you say, Mr. Nance?”

Nance beamed at his officer once more. “Aye, sir. Let’s give the boy a good one.”

Years later, Archie McPherson remembered going to his bunk at 1200 hrs after completing some deck work. As is with all cabin boys, sleep overpowered all thoughts of changing clothing and going for a shower. Sleep took the better of him and he dozed off.

Young McPherson was awoken at dawn’s early light by a barrage of men who were grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat. A little stunned, he was tossed from his hammock and the reason suddenly dawned on him, he was going to have to go through the line-crossing ceremony.

The ceremony, a long-standing tradition of initiation, commemorates a sailor’s first time crossing of the equator and is a memory remembered always by each seafarer. It ushers in a sense of belonging, a sense of ‘finally I’m a sailor’ to the newly initiated. The excitement among fellow shipmates at the conducting the line-crossing ceremony is one that tells of a happy experience.

There is a lot of history behind the pomp and ceremony and McPherson knew it. Seamen who have previously crossed the equator are called Shellbacks or, Sons Of Neptune. Those who haven’t are Pollywogs. McPherson was about to be initiated and become a Son of Neptune.

King Neptune is the ruler of the seas and the ceremony is designed to appease the King by showing him respect and in so doing to keep a sailor away from the perils of the sea and to bring good luck. It was David James’ who was chosen by Mr. Lee to dress up as King Neptune, with the Trident sceptre in his hand and a glorious crown on his head. Beside him was seated his wife, Queen Amphitrite, better known to the crew as the Bosun, George Nance. Surrounded by a gaggle of other crew members in full attire, including an unhappy ship’s doctor as Davy Jones, the royal proceedings were ready to start.

McPherson, the Pollywog, was first dipped in water to show the initiation of passing into the realm of the seas. To his everlasting embarrassment, McPherson was stripped down to his underwear dipped in the water gathered in a small barrel. After the dip several raw eggs were broken onto McPherson’s head then he was made to drink a concoction of beer, worcestershire sauce, raw eggs and a few other ingredients chosen by Mr. Lee. This concoction is known as the truth serum, forcing him to speak the absolute truth when he swears his allegiance to King Neptune and the sea! Finally, and without any reference to the style of the day, McPherson’s head was shaved in as haphazard a manner as possible and paint was then applied randomly over his body.

King Neptune then made an earnest speech and accepted the ushering of the new sailor into the sea under the auspice of His Majesty. The sceptre is laid forth to mark this moment of truth and then a very dishevelled McPherson was tied up and dragged away to the anchor, to the sound of a beating home-made drum.

Once at the anchor, the newly initiated McPherson was made to crack open a bottle of beer on the anchor itself at the first go. Cracking it open at once pertains to long luck and safe seas.

At the end of it, the Captain Blackmore, the new Chief Engineer and the rest of the crew congratulated McPherson on his initiation.

Finally, at the end of the day, a feast was enjoyed by the off duty and McPherson whereupon he was handed the highly esteemed Equator Crossing Certificate, sealing the ritual’s authenticity forever.

As for Richard Blackmore, the ceremony had the desired effect and his focus was once more on his crew and his ship. Maggie was still in his heart, but he needed to be focused in the here and now and Mr. Lee had pulled him out of his fugue in admirable fashion.

Copyright Tom Kane © 2018

Please use the menu system below to read further chapters in The Brittle Sea saga

Chapters

MARCH 15, 1931

APRIL 15, 1912

DISASTER

DEBRIS

THE LOSS

MAGGIE

MISSING

NEW YORK

GORDON BELLAGON

THE TWO MINDS OF MAGGIE

A PARTING OF THE WAYS

VENEZUELA

THE DAYS GROW LONGER

CROSSING THE LINE

MAGGIE’S FALL

STORM WARNING

HARKER’S SEARCH

A BOX OF TRICKS

REBELLION

BALLANTINE LEARNS THE TRUTH

This is a first draft, so please forgive spelling & grammatical errors. Context and characters may change between now and the final publication date.

When published as an eBook and paperback at the end of 2018, this book will be the first in a trilogy: The Brittle Sea, The Brittle Land and The Brittle Sky.

As a English expat author living in Cyprus, you may think my life revolves around cocktails by the pool. You would be wrong. In ten years on the island I’ve had my fair share of adventures and interesting experiences.

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