Argentine: Man sails solo across Atlantic to be with father.
Days after Argentina cancelled all international passenger flights to shield the country from the coronavirus, Juan Manuel Ballestero began his journey home the only way possible: He stepped aboard his small sailboat for what turned out to be an 85-day odyssey across the Atlantic.
The 47-year-old sailor could have stayed put on the tiny Portuguese island of Porto Santo, to ride out the era of lockdowns and social distancing in a scenic place largely spared by the virus. But the idea of spending what he thought could be “the end of the world” away from his family, especially his father who was soon to turn 90, was unbearable.
So he loaded his 29-foot sailboat 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,” Ballestero said. “I wanted to do everything possible to return home. The most important thing for me was to be with my family.”
The coronavirus pandemic has upended life in virtually every country, gutting the global economy, exacerbating geopolitical tension and halting most international travel. A particularly painful aspect of this awful era has been the inability of an untold number of people to rush home to help ailing loved ones and attend funerals.
Friends tried to dissuade Ballestero from embarking on the perilous journey, and authorities in Portugal warned him he might not be allowed to re-enter if he ran into trouble and had to turn back. But he was resolute. “I bought myself a one-way ticket, and there was no going back,” he said.
His relatives, used to Ballestero’s itinerant lifestyle, knew better than to try to talk him out of it. “The uncertainty of not knowing where he was for 50-some days was very rough,” said his father, Carlos Alberto Ballestero. “But we had no doubt this was going to turn out well.”
Sailing across the Atlantic in a small boat is challenging in the best of circumstances. The added difficulties of doing it during a pandemic became clear three weeks into the trip.
On April 12th, authorities in Cape Verde refused to allow him to dock at the island nation to restock his supply of food and fuel, Ballestero said. Hoping he had enough food to carry him through, he turned his boat west. With less fuel than he hoped for, he would be more at the mercy of the winds.
He was no stranger to spending long stretches of time at sea, but being alone on the open ocean is daunting to even the most experienced sailor. Days into the journey, he became panicked by the light of a ship that he thought was trailing him and seemed to be approaching closer and closer. “I started going as fast as possible,” Ballestero said. “I thought, ‘If it gets very close, I’ll shoot.’”
Seafaring is a Ballestero family tradition. From the time he was three, his father took him aboard the fishing vessels he captained. When he turned 18, he took a job on a fishing boat in southern Argentina. Off the coast of Patagonia, one of the most experienced fishermen aboard gave him a piece of advice that would become a way of life.
“Go see the world,” the fisherman said. And so he did.
Ballestero has spent much of his life sailing, with stops in Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Bali, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Brazil, Alaska and Spain. He has tagged sea turtles and whales for conservation organisations and spent summers working as a skipper aboard boats owned by wealthy Europeans.