Naval Myths and Traditions

To the outside person, the Navy is a different world with customs, myths, and vocabulary that only those inducted into its ranks would know. For example, once the museum has been cleared in the evening, you can overhear the sailors on duty saying that the building is “Mike Tango.” Many of the gift shop staff learn very quickly that this means they can close and the museum is empty. Another simple example is that the restrooms are called “head.” During change of command ceremonies at the museum, visitors can witness the naval tradition of passing the reigns from one commander to the next. The ceremony is filled with naval traditions that have lasted for hundreds of years. To detail every one of these phrases and traditions would fill a book, so we have chosen just a few to allow you to join the ranks and learn a little more about Navy traditions, lore, and terms.

-A Navy lore that has been passed through the generations is that of The Flying Dutchman. It is such a popular legend that it even made it onto the Naval traditions list from the Naval Heritage and Command website. According to the NCH’s website,

Figure 1 Albert Pinkham Ryder’s The Flying Dutchman c. 1887. On Display at the National Museum of American Art, Washington.

“One superstition has it that any mariner who sees the ghost ship called the Flying Dutchman will die within the day. The tale of the Flying Dutchman trying to round the Cape of Good Hope against strong winds and never succeeding, then trying to make Cape Horn and failing there too, has been the most famous of maritime ghost stories for more 300 years. The cursed spectral ship sailing back and forth on its endless voyage, its ancient white-hair crew crying for help while hauling at her sail, inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge to write his classic “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” to name but one famous literary work. The real Flying Dutchman is supposed to have set sail in 1660.”

 

-Are you a Shellback? In the Navy, if you have crossed the equator, you are a shellback. Many times, this feat is commemorated with a Crossing the Line ceremony. Become a shellback is a rite of passage and has been for hundreds of years.  The earliest account is from a British sailor in 1708. In today’s Navy, the tradition is one of simple fun and a way to blow off some steam. However, in the beginning, sailors would practice the ceremony with great earnest. Long before the 1700’s, sailors believed that Neptune -the god of sea- was quite fickle. In order to appease him, they

Figure 2 Certificate from a line crossing ceremony in 1944 aboard the USS Bluegill

would sacrifice goats and oxen. By the 18th century, while the belief in ancient seafaring gods was gone, the traditions and practices to honor them remained in place. One of these being the shellback initiation. Before crossing the equator, the sailor was referred to as a “pollywog”. Once they were initiated, they then become “shellbacks”, otherwise known as fit subjects of King Neptune. Pranks are often played on the new initiates during the ceremony. However, the Navy has outlined that any hazing or abuse is strictly forbidden. The ceremony today is meant to honor the achievements of the sailor. While specific activities of the ceremony are for the sailor’s knowledge only, one can only imagine the shenanigans to be had when sailors get some time to play around. Crossing the equator isn’t the only such instance that has a ceremony. Crossing into the Arctic allows a sailor to go from a “red-nose” to a “blue-nose”!

 

– Done the dogwatch lately? No, we are not asking if you have pet sat lately. A dogwatch in the Navy is the period between 4:00 and 6:00pm and 6:00 and 8:00pm. The dogwatches are only two hours long in order to help avoid having the same Sailors on duty at the same time each day. The term’s origins are fuzzy but date back to at least the 1700’s. A normal watch schedule aboard ships are:

Noon to 4:00 p.m. Afternoon watch 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. First dogwatch 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Second dogwatch 8:00 p.m. to midnight 1st night watch Midnight to 4:00 a.m. Middle watch or mid watch  4:00 to 8:00 a.m. Morning watch  8:00 a.m. to noon Forenoon watch

The watches are marked by the ringing of bells. Bells were used because in the 1700’s most sailors couldn’t afford watches and if they could they did not know how to read them.

Number of bells Afternoon Watch First Dog Watch Last Dog Watch First Watch Middle Watch Morning Watch Forenoon Watch
One 12:30 16:30 20:30 00:30 04:30 08:30
Two 13:00 17:00 21:00 01:00 05:00 09:00
Three 13:30 17:30 21:30 01:30 05:30 09:30
Four 14:00 18:00 22:00 02:00 06:00 10:00
Five 14:30 18:30 22:30 02:30 06:30 10:30
Six 15:00 19:00 23:00 03:00 07:00 11:00
Seven 15:30 19:30 23:30 03:30 07:30 11:30
Eight 16:00 20:00 Midnight 04:00 08:00 Noon

 

– Have you earned your fish? For something submarine specific, all submariner’s main objective is to earn their fish. This means they are fully qualified on submarines. The term “fish” is a nickname for the submarine force insignia’s formal name, which is dolphins. Once a sailor has qualified to wear his or her dolphins, an SS is added to their rank, standing for “Submarine Specialist.” The insignia of the US Submarine force is a submarine flanked by two dolphins. Dolphins were the attendants to Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea and the patron deity to sailors. They were also chosen due to their shared characteristic of diving and surfacing like a submarine.  The badge came into effect in 1923 when a commander suggested that those who had qualified on a submarine have something to recognize this accomplishment. The dolphins appear to look more fish-like, gaining the nickname “fish”

These are just a few naval traditions and terms. We would love to hear more terms and traditions from you. Have you served aboard a submarine or a surface ship? What are some terms you know of? What myths and legends have passed through the years that are still talked about today? Maybe you’ll know a couple of terms we don’t. So, grab a cup of Joe (named after Josephus Daniels, who was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Among Daniels’ reforms of the Navy was the abolishment of the officers’ wine mess. From that time on, the strongest drink aboard Navy ships could only be coffee. Over the years, a cup of coffee became known as a cup of Joe) and share your Navy knowledge.

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