Why We Travel: “Join the Navy, See the World”

In looking for our next home, it must be a place that inspires stories. These are some of the stories from our life’s adventures that have inspired us. They are why we travel.

As you learned of my father in Mike’s post about our Australia adventure, Dan Smith is a man of action. He is also a man of the world, and his travels began at an early age. So did mine, thanks to his annual training with the U.S. Navy. He is why I first began to travel, and this is his story of a life of adventure. 

High school just could not hold my attention. I was born in San Diego, California, but I was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. When I was in high school, I was always daydreaming of traveling to exotic locations. I dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Navy, and my navy boot camp (basic training) was in San Diego. After boot camp, I completed specialized training at Treasure Island in San Francisco.

I was transferred to a small ship homeported in Newport, Rhode Island. That ship, the U.S.S. Courtney (DE-1021), was set to circumnavigate South America along with four other ships. Our mission was to conduct naval exercises with most South American navies.

To a still impressionable 17-year-old from Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA, this was quite an exotic undertaking. I had been to California multiple times and to Florida a couple of times as a young person, but I’d never been overseas. I longed to go overseas. There are few things more beautiful than a sunset seen from the deck of a ship at sea.

Trinidad: My ship pulled into every major port in South America and also pulled into Trinidad before we reached South America. From the 1800s to 1962, Trinidad was a British Colony. What I remember the most about Trinidad is the steel bands playing on the streets.

We crossed the equator at 000°-00m latitude and 37°-22W longitude. U.S. Navy sailors referred to this event as “crossing the line.” The tradition of the line-crossing ceremony lived on into the 1990s era, and for many navies in the world at the time, it constituted a rite of passage for sailors. In the British Royal Navy and the United States Navy, for example, “pollywogs” who had not yet crossed the line transformed into “shellbacks” with the ceremony, entering a brotherhood of trusty sailors. I had to endure the usual navy hazing ritual from those aboard who had already crossed the equator. On our ship, all pollywogs were issued a printed “royal summons” to appear before King Neptune’s court. Those passing the initiation were issued a fancy shellback certificate. Had our ship been in the Pacific Ocean and crossed the equator and the International Date Line at the same time, we’d be called “golden dragons.”

The ceremony traditionally was presided over by a shellback dressed as King Neptune, ruler of the high seas; other shellbacks might dress as the king’s court. As popularly known, the ceremony involved the embarrassment of pollywogs for the entertainment of shellbacks. Pollywogs often had to run through a gauntlet of various obstacles then swear loyalty to King Neptune by kissing his signet ring or kissing the Royal Baby’s belly.

King Neptune

Crossing the equator ceremony and kissing the royal baby’s belly covered with limburger cheese (photo: Dan Smith)

Today, no level of hazing ceremony is allowed in the USN. However, foreign navies and selected civilian cruise ships still hold some form of equator crossing ceremony.

Rio de Janeiro: The first South American port we pulled into was Salvador, Brazil. Salvador was the capital of Brazil from 1549 until 1763, and Rio de Janeiro was the capital from 1763 until 1960. When I visited Brazil, Brasilia, located in the center mass of the country, was the capital.

Ports of Call

Ports visited during Dan’s circumnavigation of South America (image: Dan Smith)

Rio was the highlight of my South American cruise. The beach areas, including the world-renowned Copacabana beach, were quite cosmopolitan, as was downtown Rio, but the hillsides were filled with makeshift housing and people scraping to get by from day to day.

Viewing Sugarloaf Mountain at the entrance to the bay and visiting the Christ the Redeemer of the Andes statue atop Corcovado Mountain are among the most satisfying memories I have from my traveling adventures.

Christ of the Andes

Christ the Redeemer of the Andes statue in the hills above Rio with Dan at front right (photo: Dan Smith)

On one of my duty nights, I was assigned shore patrol duty. Shore patrol is the navy’s version of a police force. On most navy ships, this was a collateral duty in addition to your normal specialty duties. I was paired with two Rio police officers and patrolled areas where visiting sailors were likely to get in trouble after drinking too much. I remember we stopped for a coffee break, and it was the first time I was to be introduced to Brazil’s extremely thick version of a cup of coffee.

Uruguay: It is said that Montevideo is modeled after Paris to some extent. Montevideo was very clean, and I enjoyed the plaza-based restaurants.

Argentina: Buenos Aires is also very cosmopolitan and was one of my favorite stops. Puerto Belgrano is the equivalent to Argentina’s Navy as Norfolk is to the U.S. Navy.

Strait of Magellan: Punta Arenas, Argentina, was the southernmost point of our cruise. We traversed the Strait of Magellan from the South Atlantic Ocean to the South Pacific Ocean. The passage was memorable because of its narrow winding passages and many lighthouses.

Chile: Talcahuano is home to Chile’s Navy. It is a major commercial center and is considered to be the best harbor on the West Coast of South America. Valparaiso (Valley of Paradise) is a resort city that is beautiful by any measure. The beaches and hillside plazas match any in South America.

Peru: Callao (Lima), Peru, was filled with friendly people, and I remember they exhibited a very conservative nature. I would like to revisit Lima in the future.

Ecuador: Talara, Peru, and Salinas, Ecuador, were very small ports-of-call, and I hardly remember any specifics of those visits.

Panama Canal Zone: Entering the Rodman Canal Zone, we passed through the Panama Canal from Pacific to Atlantic.

Colombia: I mostly remember Cartagena, Colombia, for its many fortified walls, old forts, and beautiful churches.

Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, USA: While returning to our home port of Newport, Rhode Island, we passed through the worst storm I ever spent in all my years of sea duty as we were off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

Since those high school days, I’ve continued to feel the call to travel. I made other cruises to other countries during my navy career, and I still continue traveling in my civilian life. My civilian travels have included Canada, Mexico, Belize, and Australia. You can hardly travel any less expensively than by being in the navy, but world travel is not something you have to join the navy to do.

Some travelers plan in great detail, and some just “hit the road.” Which traveler will you be?

Thanks to my father, Daniel D. Smith, Sr., for sharing his love of travel. Since he joined the U.S. Navy at 17, he has earned an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, and completed graduate studies in World History. He is retired from the U.S. Navy with 26 years of service and also retired from Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as well as being a published author. You can learn more about his naval career, his books, and his many collections at navycollector.com