Days after Argentina canceled all international passenger flights to protect the country from the new coronavirus, Juan Manuel Ballestero began his journey home in the only possible way: got on his little one sailboat and embarked on what turned out to be an 85-day odyssey through the Atlantic Ocean.
The 47-year-old sailor could have stayed on the small Portuguese island of Porto Santo to wait for the time of closings and social distancing to pass in a place with beautiful landscapes where the virus has practically not arrived, but the idea of passing what he believed could be “the end of the world” away from his family, especially his soon-to-be 90-year-old father, he found it unbearable.
So, he narrated that he supplied his 9-meter boat with canned tuna, fruit and rice, and set sail in mid-March.
“I didn’t want to stay like a coward on an island where there were no cases“Said Ballestero. “I wanted to do everything possible to return home. For me the most important thing was to be with my family ”.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted life in almost every country, devastating economies around the world, exacerbating geopolitical tensions, and canceling most international travel. An especially painful aspect of this terrible time has been the inability of countless people to rush back to their homes to help sick loved ones or attend funerals.
Ballestero’s friends tried to dissuade him from embarking on that dangerous journey, and the Portuguese authorities warned him that they might not allow him to re-enter the country in case he had problems and was forced to return, but he was determined.
“I bought a one-way ticket and there was no going back”, said.
His relatives, accustomed to Ballestero’s itinerant lifestyle, knew that they could not convince him otherwise.
“The uncertainty of not knowing where he was for fifty-odd days was very difficult,” said his father, Carlos Alberto Ballestero. “But we did not doubt that everything would turn out well.”
Crossing the Atlantic by sailing on a small sailboat is challenging in the best of circumstances. The added difficulties of doing so during a pandemic became apparent within three weeks of the journey.
On April 12, Cape Verde authorities refused to allow him to dock on the island to refuel food and fuel, Ballestero said.
Hoping to have enough food for the rest of the trip, he steered his boat to the west. If he had less fuel left than he expected, he would be at the mercy of the wind.
Ballestero was used to spending long periods at sea, but being alone in the open sea is overwhelming even for the most experienced navigator.
A few days after starting the trip, he was terrified by the light of a boat that he thought was following his trail and seemed to get closer and closer.
“I started browsing as fast as possible,” said Ballestero. “I thought: if it gets too close, I’ll shoot.”
Ballestero has spent much of his life sailing and has docked in Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Bali, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Brazil, Alaska and Spain.
He has identified sea turtles and whales for environmental organizations and has spent summers working as a boat captain for wealthy Europeans.
In 2017, he bought his sailboat, an Ohlson 29 named Skua, in hopes of taking him around the world. The boat proved to be up to the difficult task of crossing the ocean on a planet in a state of crisis.
“I was not afraid, but I was very uncertain“, said. “It was very strange to navigate in the midst of a pandemic with humanity reeling around me.”
Sailing can be a lonely passion, and for Ballestero it was particularly so on this trip, as he listened to the news on a radio for 30 minutes every night to find out how the virus was advancing around the world.
“I kept thinking if this would be my last trip,” he said.
Despite the vastness of the ocean, Ballestero felt he was in a kind of quarantine, imprisoned by a relentless stream of premonitory thoughts about what the future held.
“I was a prisoner of my own freedom,” he recalled.
He stated that, as he was approaching the American continent, a huge wave hit the boat 240 kilometers from Vitória, Brazil. That event forced him to make an improvised technical stop in Vitória, which extended the trip for another ten days, when he expected to take 75.
During that stop, Ballestero learned that his brother had spoken to the media in Argentina about the trip, which caught the attention of those who were bored and confined at home. At the insistence of his friends, he created an Instagram account to document the last leg of the trip.
When he arrived in his native Mar del Plata on June 17, he was amazed by the welcome he received, as if he were a hero.
“Docking at my port, where my father had his sailboat, where he taught me so many things and learned to sail, and where all this originated, gave me the feeling of having accomplished the mission,” he said.
A health professional tested him for COVID-19 at the dock. After 72 hours, after his result was negative, he was allowed to set foot on Argentine soil.
Although he failed to celebrate his father’s 90th birthday in May, he did arrive in time for Father’s Day.
“What I lived was a dream“Said Ballestero. “But I have a strong desire to continue browsing.”