A global lockdown due to the coronavirus couldn’t stop one man from crossing the Atlantic Ocean to see his dad on Father’s Day in a harrowing 85-day solo journey from Portugal to Argentina that he completed in a small sailboat.
Juan Manuel Ballestero, 47, was living in Spain but visiting a tiny island off mainland Portugal last March when international flights were grounded due to COVID-19. The veteran sailor says he refused to face “the end of the world” apart from his parents back in Argentina, so he packed up his 8.8-metre-long sailboat, the Skua, and set sail for home.
Ballestero ultimately travelled for 85 days and across roughly 9,000 kilometres on a voyage that would take him past the equator, through several storms and across the Atlantic Ocean alone — all so he could see his parents and brothers again.
“I didn’t want to stay like a coward on an island where there were no cases,” Ballestero told the New York Times. “I wanted to do everything possible to return home. The most important thing for me was to be with my family.”
Ballestero prepared his Ohlson 29 sailboat by loading it up with canned tuna, rice, water, booze and simple rations, then he set out from Porto Santo, a tiny island in the ocean southwest of Portugal, on March 24.
Ballestero’s family say they were confident he could make the journey because he’d spent his entire career at sea, as both a fisherman and a skipper aboard various research vessels in different parts of the world. However, they didn’t always know where he was or if he was safe.
“The uncertainty of not knowing where he was for 50-some days very rough,” his father, Carlos Alberto Ballestero, told the Times. “But we had no doubt this was going to turn out well.”
The homesick sailor first travelled south from Porto Santo to Cape Verde, a Portuguese-speaking nation of islands, where he hoped to restock for his journey in mid-April. However, locals turned him away due to fears of the coronavirus, and he was forced to tighten his belt as he struck out into the open Atlantic en route to Argentina.
Ballestero says he’s spent many days on the open ocean in the past, but the solo trip was hard on him. He drank. He prayed. He panicked when he thought a distant boat was following him, only to realize later that it wasn’t.
He also marvelled at the wildlife around him, watching schools of fish pass the boat, and groups of dolphins swim alongside him for thousands of miles at a time. Ballestero later shared footage from the dolphins’ visit on Instagram.
He says he only once tried to catch a fish, but he gave up because he didn’t want to turn on the animals that had kept him company for so long.
“It felt like killing a person,” he said.
“I learned a lot about myself,” he added. “The voyage gave me lots of humility.”
Ballestero says he would tune in to the radio for 30 minutes each night to listen to updates about the virus, even though he was quarantined from the danger by thousands of kilometres of ocean in every direction.
“I was locked up in my own freedom,” he said.
He said one of the most memorable moments aboard the vessel was when he saw a skua — a seabird for which he’d named the boat — fly by during the journey.
“It was as if the bird was telling me not to give up, to keep going,” he said.
He’d initially expected the voyage to take 75 days, but a particularly rough storm hit the boat off the coast of Brazil and left it too damaged to sail onward.
“The boat went over,” he told the Associated Press. “I couldn’t trim the sail in time.”
Ballestero brought the boat into Vitoria, Brazil, for repairs, and made contact with his family before venturing out on the last leg of his journey home. He learned at that point this his brother had been telling everyone about his trip, and that reporters would be waiting for him in Argentina when he arrived.
The delay also prevented him from making it back home in time for his father’s 90th birthday, but he was determined to at least make it in time for Father’s Day.
The wayward seaman arrived in Mar del Plata, Argentina, to a hero’s welcome on Wednesday, June 17, only to wait three more days for a coronavirus test before he would be allowed on shore. He shared several photos and videos from the journey on Instagram during the last leg of the voyage, and while he was waiting for his test results.
He spoke to The Associated Press from the boat while he waited, describing how good it felt to finally be back in Argentina.
“I came to my home. It is human,” he said. “Now I am calm, anchored here in the middle of this port … There is no storm to bother me, or boat to run me over.”
Ballestero was ultimately allowed to set foot on Argentinian soil that weekend, and he made it home just in time to spend Father’s Day with his dad, Carlos, and his mother Nilda, 82.
“I wanted to be with them,” he told the AP.
He added that he plans to stay on solid ground for the next stretch of the pandemic — but not forever.
“I’ll plant a garden and buy three chickens. I’ll make it through the winter with the old people,” he told the AP.
However, he told the Times that he won’t stay put forever.
“What I lived is a dream,” Ballestero said. “But I have a strong desire to keep sailing.”
—With files from The Associated Press