Plotting the Globe: Stories of Meridians, Parallels, and the International Date Line

By Avraham Ariel; Nora Ariel Berger | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 12
Crossing the Line

In every book I ever read
Of travels on the Equator
A plague mysterious and dread,
Imperils the narrator.

Hilaire Belloc, The Modern Traveler, 1898

In 1955—several days before my twenty-first birthday—I crossed the equator for the very first time. I was the second officer aboard the m/v Yehuda, a 7000-ton deadweight, diesel-powered log carrier. In spite of my relatively young age, I had already logged nearly five years of Mediterranean and North Atlantic sea time, but I had never ventured into the tropics.

It happened on my afternoon watch—12:00 P.M. to 4:00 P.M.—while we were en route from Libreville to Port Gentil in Gabon, then a colony in French Equatorial Africa. At 3:00 P.M., to the sound of six bells, the first officer—a “trusty shellback”1 and veteran of several equator crossings—relieved me on the bridge. The first officer, or the mate, as he is addressed on ships following the British tradition, was more than the ordinary run-of-the-mill trusty shellback. He was actually a “golden shellback,” a sailor who had crossed both the equator and the International Date Line. Why golden? Because the date line is situated in the heart of the realm of the golden dragon, which is in charge of that part of the world. Didn’t you know all that?

I was just a “polliwog,” or “wog” for short. I hurried down the companionway, changed into dungarees, and joined the ship’s company on

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