The fleet anchored in Rio de Janeiro on Jan.13. Unfortunately, there was an incident the first night that came close to shattering goodwill between the US Navy and Brazil.
It all began in one of Rio’s rowdier drinking establishments when two local longshoremen got into an argument. In expressing his particular point of view, one of the longshoremen threw a beer bottle at the other. The bottle missed its intended target and continued its flight across the smoke-filled room. At the bar, a group of White Fleet sailors were enjoying a brew and good conversation when the wayward bottle found a target - a sailor from Louisiana. The rest is right out of a Hollywood movie. Sailors rallied around the victim, the longshoremen called up their reserves and the battle was joined.
When the shore patrol arrived, the donnybrook had flowed out into the street, as longshoremen and sailors threw rocks and bricks at each other. Shore patrol and local police brought about order, separated the combatants, and escorted the sailors back to their ships.
The next day, during an inquiry, Louisiana's master-at-arms testified that the “civilians seemed to be the aggressors.” After all the evidence was in, Brazilian officials agreed with this assessment and, to improve relations, publically invited the American sailors to continue to enjoy Rio.
There were no further incidents while the fleet was in Rio and the sailors all had a good time. Many of them even joined in local political parades, marching gleefully with the locals and shouting slogans they probably didn’t remotely understand. Brazilian President Penna gave high praise to what he termed “the glorious American Navy,” and Penna’s foreign minister showered the Navy with praise and described the visiting fleet as “the pride of the continent.”
During the Rio visit, Evans suffered an attack of gout, an affliction that plagued him from the start of the voyage and would be responsible for his being relieved of command when the fleet arrived in San Francisco.
It was also in Rio that the first of many wild rumors about threats to the fleet began circulating. The Rio chief of police had been advised, through unknown sources, that anarchists were plotting to blow up the fleet. Nothing came of it, although Washington did cable for details. These rumors would follow the feet throughout its voyage and eventually gave the folks back home the impression that the Great White Fleet was in constant peril.
On Jan. 21, the fleet weighed anchor and got underway, leaving Rio and setting a course for the Straits of Magellan near the southern tip of So. America.
There, rumor had it, massive whirlpools could twist a ship completely around. Winds, known as wiliwaws, were said to be so wild that ships would be dashed to pieces on the rocky shores of such nightmarishly labeled places as Delusion Bay, Desolation Island, Point Famine and Dislocation Point, all inhabited by cannibals, of course. One newspaper in California, the Sacramento Union, prophesied shipwreck and cannibalism should the White Fleet attempt the Straits. “We don’t want our Jackies eaten by terrible Tierra del Fuegans,” wrote the editor.
A Chilean cruiser met the fleet and guided it through the Straits. Although there was considerable fog and wind, the fleet completed its passage without mishap and encountered none of the calamities conjured up by the over-active imaginations of newspaper editors. Now in the South Pacific, the fleet set its track for Peru, following visits to Punta Arenas and Valparaiso, Chile.
Although normal day-to-day routine and training evolutions kept the sailors busy while underway, there were diversions after hours for those not on watch. Aboard the ships were pianos and phonographs, various games, plenty of playing cards, and handball and billiard equipments. There were also player pianos and silent movies.