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Wetting-down is a raucous ceremony for newly promoted officers observed in the U.S. and Royal navies, and the U.S. Coast Guard. The U.S. Marines, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Corps, and U.S. Public Health Service officers also participate in this custom as homage to their naval heritage. Formerly, it involved tossing the new officer into the sea, hence the name.
The wetting-down celebration is always paid for and hosted by the newly promoted officer, who invites his or her friends, which usually include several officers of the same rank at which he or she has most recently served. It is customary for the officer to spend the difference between their pay at their old rank and their pay at the new rank on the bar tab for their guests.
Normally the party occurs at a bar or pub frequented by officers. The location of the party is a big clue as to the form of the ceremony: when the party occurs in a dockside bar, the officer's friends are expected to (carefully) throw him or her into the sea. If the location is a park many miles inland from an otherwise available ocean, then the officer has very likely elected to dispense with the "wet" part of the party.
The "wet" part of the wetting-down is at the new officer's option, and must always be directly confirmed with the new officer before the party. His or her jocular friends should under no circumstances be relied on for this important point of protocol. Although permission is always required, the new officer is expected to react more or less as if it were a surprise.
Being located in a bar, there is typically a great deal of drinking of alcohol. There must always be at least one ceremonial toast. Friends present several rowdy speeches expressing their appreciation of the new officer's good comradeship and endearing faults. Often one of the speeches describes an embarrassing event in the new officer's career which occurred under the old rank, although this latter variety of speech is sometimes discouraged in order to avoid providing evidence pertinent to a disciplinary hearing.
The final speech must always be entirely complimentary. Ideally, there should be no dry eyes after the final speech, particularly if the speaker is the new officer's father. During the final speech it is considered honourable and complimentary to discreetly wipe one's eyes, if needed.
In its most exuberant (and most traditional) form, the wetting-down ceremony ends with the former peers of the new officer as a group carrying him or her out to the ocean, and tossing him or her in. Having previously approved, the new officer is expected to cheerfully submit.
Good friends have plenty of dry towels available. Wise officers change into old clothes before going to their wetting-down celebration, although in its highest form, the new officer wears a dress uniform into the sea.
It is never acceptable to use any beverage containing alcohol for dousing the newly promoted officer. This follows from seamen's traditional reverence for alcohol, which is a carefully used commodity when at sea, if it is available at all. Hence, at a wetting down, unlike some modern victory celebrations, neither beer nor champagne are ever poured on anyone's head.
A wetting-down party is informal and improvisations on the ceremony are the rule, not the exception.
The most common improvisation is to dispense with the seawater, or any kind of water whatsoever for that matter. This is an especially popular change among new officers.
The senior officer present may make the final speech, or if present, the commanding officer who made the promotion can make the final speech. Sometimes the final speech is presented by the new officer's father, especially if he has served in a Navy, although for particularly exuberant wetting-down parties, parents and senior officers are not usually invited and the honor falls to one of the new officer's close friends.
Occasionally a scuba diver hides under the pier to briefly grab the new officer from below, and more seriously to act as a lifeguard.
If the ocean is unavailable or fatally cold, a bucket of almost warm seawater may be substituted. For inland ceremonies, a bucket of seawater is sometimes brought to the party from a great distance by the new officer's friends who arrive from a seaside posting. In the case of a bucket, it is considered high form if at least one conspicuously live ocean-dwelling fish is in the seawater.
If no bucket is available, a glassful of clean icewater is sometimes substituted. This is the typical minimum "wet" part of a wetting-down.
Throwing a fellow officer into the ocean symbolically represents the new officer's departure from the friends with whom he or she formerly shared rank. Additionally, at a time when the new officer is more or less between ranks, wetting-down represents a last opportunity for former equals in rank to treat a newly superior officer with disrespect and with open affection.
Historically the officer would be in dress uniform resulting in the new metal rank insignia being tarnished by the salt water, signalling his acceptance into the new rank.
Being doused combines a very proud moment in a person's life with a lesson in humility. It also makes the event easy to remember.
In most Navies, officers wear stripes on the cuff of their uniform jacket. Upon promotion, a new stripe would be added to the cuff. The new, clean stripe would often stand out from the older, more weathered stripes. "Wetting down" was often an attempt to get the new stripe to match the older stripes so the promotion would not look as recent. Today, an officer will usually replace all of the stripes upon each promotion in an attempt to maintain a more professional uniform appearance.
Another version of this lore is that newly promoted officers would toss their new rank insignia (earlier, a fresh gold braid) at their wetting down event into a glass of sea water in order to give it a worn patina that would belie the recency of the promotion. This of course can be done today, with the pint glass and new rank insignia being placed on display at the center of the bar.
In an episode of the American TV series, Major Dad, 2nd. Lt. "Gene" Holowachuk (Matt Mulhern) is promoted to 1st. Lt. and is, therefore, obliged to throw his fellow officers a Wetting-down ceremony. However, Holowachuk wants the ceremony to be alcohol-free since he does not drink. The episode, titled, "Wetting-Down", originally aired on October 22, 1990.