NHHC Home Frequently
Crossing the Line, Plank Owner and
Other Unofficial Certificates Acquired by Naval Personnel
Adapted from: Silvey, Frank. "The Certified Sailor."
All Hands 633 (Oct. 1969): 16-21.
There are serious ones, humorous ones and unusual ones. But any
sailor worth their salt will never rest until they have a scrapbook
full of them.
They are the unofficial certificates that document where a sailor
has been, what they have done, and most importantly, what they
are - a Shellback or a Blue Nose or a Mossback or a Double Centurion.
Or even a Goldfish or Sea Squatter.
On any noteworthy occasion - and perhaps on some that might be
otherwise forgotten - somebody in the crew is sure to spend hours
at a drawing board to create a memorable certificate, replete
with salty language, drawings of mermaids and tritons and anchors
and chains, and the signature of Neptunus Rex or some other high
potentate, And forever after, the crew of that ship will treasure
their copies as they treasure their rating badges.
Nowadays it's all in fun and without official recognition. But
mariners of earlier years, when it all began, were in earnest.
As all sailors knew well, Neptune, god of the sea, was fickle.
He played an important role in ancient rituals just as he does
in today's initiations into the Orders of the Deep. At his slightest
whim, Neptune, it was believed, might throw a storm into the path
of a ship that would splinter her oars and spars like matchwood,
or cast her onto the rocky coast.
And that was when he was feeling playful. What would the dread
deity bring to a crew if, Zeus forbid, they made him angry?
The superstitions of the sea provided for ways to stay out of
that kind of trouble. In the earliest days, oxen and goats might
be sacrificed to make the old man of the sea more favorably disposed.
He could, under proper circumstances, become downright protective
Also, in those early rituals, the location of the rites had to
be right. If every element surrounding the ceremonies was not
just so, all Hades might break loose. The location of the ship
had an effect on how acceptable the honors to Neptune were. A
rite performed off certain capes (for instance, those with temples
on them) would work best.
And finally, the apprentices had to be instructed in the behavior
that was acceptable and unacceptable. As a later Ancient Mariner
discovered to his grief, the rulers of the deep frown on anyone
who kills an albatross. There were dozens of such strictures -
and woe betide the sailor, no matter how green, who transgressed
As previously stated, an ox or a goat was normally sacrificed
to appease the sea gods. But not always. Jonah, for example (as
our Bible experts recall), was dropped over the side when the
crew of the ship on which he was a passenger decided he had brought
on the storm that threatened to wreck them. It worked. The storm
stopped, Jonah was picked up by a passing whale, and the ship
Even as late as the 17th century, when no one (well, hardly none)
believed in Neptune or other marine deities any more, initiation
into the mysteries of the deep could be a rough process. According
to a writer of the time, apprentices "who pass certain places,
where they have never passed," undergo various penalties
- for example, to be dropped "from the yardarm into the sea."
Such are the origins of the granddaddy of all seagoing ceremonies:
the shellback initiation when a ship crosses the Equator, in which
"pollywogs" (sailors who have not previously crossed
the Line) become "shellbacks" (fit subjects of King
The colorful tradition and ceremonious rituals survive, but anything
dangerous or demeaning is prohibited by Navy regulations today.
Here's how SecNav [Secretary of the Navy] Instruction 1610.2,
dated 1 Oct. 1997 spells out the policy concerning military functions
which involve initiations or other similar ceremonies:
Military customs and traditions have long been an integral
part of the Navy and Marine Corps. Although in the past some
hazing has occurred in conjunction with ceremonies, initiations
or rites of passage, these activities, if properly supervised,
can be effective leadership tools to instill espirit de corps,
unit cohesion and respect for an accomplishment of another Sailor
or Marine. While most ceremonies commemorate the many selfless
feats of bravery of our military men and women, they also commemorate
significant events. These feats and events form the basis upon
which our Core Values of Honor, Courage and Commitment were founded.
Graduations, chiefs' initiations, "crossing the line"
ceremonies, and others are only meant to celebrate and recognize
the achievements of individual Sailors or Marines or those of
entire units. Service members must be able to work together,
building-up, encouraging, and supporting their shipmates. Hazing
behavior that is degrading, embarrassing or injurious is unprofessional
Commanders must be aware of all ceremonies and initiatives conducted
within their organizations and take proactive steps to ensure
that these activities do not violate this policy.
Hazing is defined as any conduct whereby a military member or
members, regardless of service or rank, without proper authority
causes another military member or members, regardless of service
or rank, to suffer or be exposed to any activity which is cruel,
abusive, humiliating, oppressive, demeaning, or harmful. Soliciting
or coercing another to perpetuate any such activity is also considered
hazing. Hazing need not involve physical contact among or between
military members; it can be verbal or psychological in nature.
Actual or implied consent to acts of hazing does not eliminate
the culpability of the perpetrator.
Hazing can include, but is not limited to, the following: playing
abusive or ridiculous tricks; threatening or offering violence
or bodily harm to another; striking; branding; taping; tattooing;
shaving; greasing; painting; requiring excessive physical exercise
beyond what is required to meet standards; "pinning";
"tacking on"; "blood wings"; or forcing or
requiring the consumption of food alcohol, drugs, or any other
We won't go into detail on what occurs when Neptune and his
court are piped aboard and the pollywogs join the Order of the
Shellbacks, because that's a mystery of the deep, after all. Suffice
it to say, that when the day ends, the Shellback has arrived.
To prove it, he has a certificate of impressive size, festooned
with drawings of fish, mermaids and a trident-wielding Neptune,
which proclaims in effect:
TO ALL SAILORS WHEREVER YE MAY BE and to all Mermaids, Sea
Serpents, Whales, Sharks, Dolphins, Skates, Suckers, Lobsters,
Crabs, and other Living Things of the Sea, GREETINGS:
KNOW YE: That on this ......., day of .......... 19...... in Latitude
000º 00' and Longitude ...................., there appeared
within Our Royal Domain the ...................., bound for ....................
BE IT REMEMBERED: That said Vessel, Officers and Crew thereof
having been inspected and passed on by Yourself and Our Royal
AND BE IT KNOWN: By all ye Sailors, Mariners and Land Lubbers,
who may be honored by his presence, that
Seaman W, T. Door, USN, having been found worthy to be numbered
as ONE OF OUR TRUSTY SHELLBACKS, has been gathered to our fold
and duly initiated into the SOLEMN MYSTERIES OF THE ANCIENT ORDER
OF THE DEEP.
BE IT FURTHER UNDERSTOOD: That by virtue of the power invested
in me I hereby command my subject to show due honor and respect
to him whenever he may enter Our Realm.
DISOBEY THIS ORDER UNDER PENALTY OF OUR ROYAL DISPLEASURE.
Ruler of the Raging Main
Or something of a similar nature.
Obviously, the sailor who isn't so certified is little more than
a landlubber. Ask any shellback. The pollywog simply hasn't been
around--and a worse stigma for a sailor is hard to imagine.
Through the years, the wish to mark other seagoing milestones
has given birth to certificates for all kinds of distinctions.
Most of them are what the television industry would call "spin-offs"
- imitations with variations from the shellback idea; they document,
in salty language, passing certain places for the first time.
The Domain of the Golden Dragon, for instance. (You enter the
dragon's empire when you cross the International Date Line by
sailing west (say some), or sailing east (say others). With the
extensive Navy operations In the Far East since (and before) World
War II, this passage has become so common that few initiation
ceremonies are actually held. But the certificate, decorated with
Chinese-style dragon, will still find its way to a place on the
wall of a sailor's den.
Other notable line-crossings have their certificates too. For
the intrepid sailor who crosses the Arctic Circle, various documents
will attest his entrance to the Northern Domain of the Polar Bear
or the Royal Order of the Blue Noses.
The Arctic Circle certificates have a long seafaring tradition
behind them. In the middle ages, when European sailors almost
never got to the Equator, they held ceremonies similar to the
shellback initiation on crossing the Arctic Circle or entering
the tropics. Nowadays, King Polar Bear is piped aboard at the
limit of his domain, and lets his wrath be known to the "Red
Noses" - the uninitiated.
At the other end of the world, you enter the Royal Domain of the
Emperor Penguin by crossing the Antarctic Circle, and His Imperial
Majesty inducts you as a Frozen Stiff. The bearer of this certificate
is entitled "to all of the privileges of this frozen realm
of blizzards, including freezing, shivering, starving, and any
other privileged miseries that can possibly be extended during
his stay in this land of answer to a well digger's dream."
And while you're in southern latitudes, you might qualify for
a distinction that has become rare in this age of the Panama Canal:
the title of Mossback. Members of this exclusive brotherhood are
those who have completed the fearsome voyage around stormy Cape
Horn. They are given the right to spit into the wind, if they
want to risk it.
But even if you were a Shellback, Mossback, Blue Nose, Frozen
Stiff and subject of the Golden Dragon, there would be more distinctions
you could gain. Sailors' ingenuity has given rise to several combinations
of these awards - based on a ship's achieving more than one on
the same voyage, or even at the same time.
For instance, those who cross the 180-degree meridian and the
Equator at the same time become Golden Shellbacks. And in 1965,
the submarine USS Capitaine (AGSS-336) topped nearly everybody
by crossing the intersection of the two lines underwater.
Or if you round the Horn and cross the Equator on the same voyage,
you are duly honored as a Horned Shellback. Of course, it's hard
for a Mossback to avoid becoming a Shellback; but this certificate
And it's a safe bet that some ships have made out Blue-nosed-Shellback
cards or Frozen-Mossback certificates. We just haven't seen them
Of course, certificates are available for round-the-world voyages
and similar out-of-the-ordinary cruises, We suspect that some
special certificate is made for achievements such as that of USS
Edisto (AGB-2) in 1955. In that one year, her crew became
Blue-Nosed, Frozen-Stiff, Golden-Dragon Shellbacks. That's hard
Many such certificates are invented to commemorate participation
in a specific operation. Random examples include the West of Shanghai-Manila
Club, comprising men who were in the first task group to enter
the Sulu Sea after the fall of the Philippines during World War
II, and the Royal Order of the High-jump, for participants in
the Antarctic operation of that name in 1946-47.
But you don't have to cross a line or round a cape to receive
You may be a Plank Owner if you were
a member of the commissioning crew of a ship and served aboard
for a year, a month and a day after commissioning. (Some ships
waive the service requirement. It's all unofficial, after all.)
According to tradition, a member of a ship's commissioning detail
in the days of wooden vessels had the right to take a plank from
her deck when she was decommissioned. It made a good conversation
piece for his mantel. Today, it would be difficult to find a plank
on a steel ship; but crew members cherish the certificate that
gives them "clear and unencumbered title" to one anyway.
Different units have made their own variations. A helicopter squadron
made its original crew "Rotor Rooters," giving them
title to one rotor blade. Another variant is the "Plank Preserver"
certificate given to members of the decommissioning crew of USS
Whether or not you helped commission or decommission a ship, if
you served aboard one a long time you may be eligible for another
honor: the status of Shackle and Grommet Owner, The rules for
this distinction, as for all unofficial awards, vary among ships;
some require 15 years, some say three consecutive enlistments.
(A shackle, by the way, is a U-shaped steel connection with a
pin through the open end, used to make things fast. A grommet
is a metal eyelet in a piece of canvas. But all you shackle and
grommet owners know that already.)
Milestones in a sailor's career often rate notice in the form
of certificates. Pilots join the "Century Club" when
they make their hundredth carrier landing, then become "Double
Centurions" at 200. Some pilots over Vietnam were inducted
into the "200 Mission Club" and the "300 Mission
Club." This tradition has continued in subsequent conflicts.
Another "Century Club" is an organization of Florida-based
hurricane hunters who have flown through winds of 100 miles per
hour or more. Members of the "Not So Ancient Order of the
Hurriphooners" receive a scroll bearing the legend: "At
wave-level height, this member has battled forces of Neptunus
Rex and aerial elements of the Chief High Gremlin to a standstill."
It is signed by the Most Exalted Hurriphoon Hunter and the High
Hurriphoon Cloud Sniffer.
But not all certificates are for achievements such as flying an
aircraft through a hurricane, The same viewpoint that invents
new horrors for pollywogs also devises a suitable award for that
occasion when a man makes a fool of himself.
At one squadron "awards ceremony," a red-faced aviator
was, with due pomp, given a citation as an ace Tire-Buster - for
blowing a tire on each of a half-dozen landings.
And then there was the carrier's print shop that printed the daily
air plan in red ink, instead of black, by mistake. Under the red
lights in Air Ops and elsewhere, the red air plan looked like
a blank sheet of paper. The print shop was duly honored with a
certificate for unoutstanding performance - along with comments
by the Air Ops crew that can't be reproduced here.
To qualify for membership in the Royal Order of Whale Bangers,
you must have been on board a ship when she fired at a whale,
mistaking it for a submarine.
But among the less-than-glorious clubs are some that Navy personnel
are glad to be around to join.
The High-floating Hook-bouncing Barrier Crashers, for one. It's
for carrier pilots who had to use the emergency barrier to land.
Another one is the Goldfish Club, for pilots who ditch and have
to take to a life raft. If they spend more than 24 hours on the
raft, they become Sea Squatters. (The latter award is open to
blackshoes, too. Any takers?)
And among the most grateful recipients of dubious honors are the
members of the Caterpillar Club--comprising anyone who has made
an unscheduled parachute jump from a disabled plane. In memory
of their use of the silkworm's product (or nylon, as the case
may be), club members wear a gold caterpillar pin - on civvies
only, of course. The color of the caterpillar's jeweled eyes is
determined by the circumstances of the jump; for instance, ruby
eyes show that the wearer has survived a midair collision.
Pilots in the Korean conflict were given cards certifying their
membership in the "Railroader's Union." Members had
the privilege of working on North Korean railroads as "journeyman
The process of inventing new certificates never ends, Documents
for future operating areas are being prepared.
The moon, for instance. Any Seabee chosen for the first Navy Construction
Team lunar expedition will likely receive an honorary Moon Construction
But the most exclusive certificate of the century has already
been issued: the plaque taken to the moon by former Naval Aviator
Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 shipmates. Not even a
Golden Blue-Nosed Shellback can match the distinction of being
the first men on the moon."
Unofficial Certificates Are Not (Repeat Not) Stocked by the
The Naval Historical Center, Navy Personnel Command and All
Hands magazine do not maintain records of who received the
certificates named in this article. These certificates are unofficial;
copies were not forwarded for inclusion in the Navy's official
personnel or command records. None are in the Navy-wide supply
system. A few local commands might design and print such items
as the Shellback certificate in their own print shops, but this
practice is not common.
Many certificates were originally drawn and lettered by the men
who participated in the event - and then all the copies were handed
out to the crew. Some of the more common documents - Shellback,
Golden Dragon, Arctic, Antarctic, Plank Owner, and others - are
sold by commercial firms catering to Navy
personnel. However, no certificates are printed supplied by
any government agency above the local command level.