BUENOS AIRES – Days after Argentina canceled all international passenger flights to protect the country from the new corona virus, Juan Manuel Ballestero started his journey home in the only possible way: he boarded his small sailboat, which turned out to be an 85-day odyssey the Atlantic.
The 47-year-old seaman could have stayed on the tiny Portuguese island of Porto Santo to survive the era of closures and social detachment in a scenic location that’s largely spared the virus. But the idea of spending what he thought was the “end of the world” outside his family, especially his father, who was about to turn 90, was unbearable.
So he said 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,” said Ballestero. “I wanted to do everything I could to go back home. The most important thing for me was to be with my family. “
The corona virus pandemic has changed lives in virtually every country in the world, gutted the global economy, exacerbated geopolitical tensions and stopped most international travel.
A particularly painful aspect of this terrible era was the inability of an immeasurable number of people to rush home to help sick relatives and attend funerals.
Friends tried to stop Mr. Ballestero from embarking on the dangerous journey, and the authorities in Portugal warned him that he might not be able to reenter if he got into trouble and had to turn around. But he was determined.
“I bought a one-way ticket and there was no going back,” he said.
His relatives, who were used to Mr. Ballestero’s hiking lifestyle, knew better than trying to stop him.
“There was a lot of uncertainty about not knowing where he was for 50 days,” said his father Carlos Alberto Ballestero. “But we had no doubt that this would end well.”
Sailing across the Atlantic in a small boat is a challenge in the best of circumstances. The additional difficulties of doing this during a pandemic became apparent three weeks after the trip.
On April 12, Cape Verde authorities refused to allow him to dock with the island nation to replenish its food and fuel supplies, Ballestero said.
Hoping that he still had enough to eat, he turned his boat west. With less fuel than he had hoped for, he would have been more exposed to the winds.
It wasn’t strange to him to spend a long time at sea, but being alone in the open sea is discouraging even for the most experienced sailor.
Days after the trip began, he panicked through the light of a ship he thought was going to follow him, and seemed to be getting closer and closer.
“I started driving as fast as possible,” said Mr. Ballestero. “I thought if it got very close I’ll shoot.”
Seafaring is a family tradition at Ballestero.
From the age of three, his father took him on board the fishing vessels he commanded.
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 on board gave him advice that should become a way of life.
“Go and look at the world,” said the fisherman.
And so he did.
Mr. Ballestero has spent much of his life sailing, with stops in Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Bali, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Brazil, Alaska and Spain.
He tagged sea turtles and whales for conservation organizations and spent the summer as a skipper on boats from wealthy Europeans.
He bought his sailboat Ohlson 29 named the Skua in 2017 in hopes of taking it around the world. It turned out to be the task of crossing an ocean on a planet that was in crisis mode.
“I was not afraid, but I was very uncertain,” he said. “It was very strange to be sailing in the middle of a pandemic while humanity was swaying around me.”
Sailing can be a lonely passion, and this was particularly the case on this trip for Mr. Ballestero, who listened to the radio for 30 minutes every night to take stock of how the virus spread around the world.
“I kept thinking about whether this would be my last trip,” he said.
Regardless of the vastness of the ocean, Mr. Ballestero was in quarantine, locked up by an unrelenting stream of foreboding thoughts about the future.
“I was locked up in my own freedom,” he recalled.
On a particularly busy day, he turned to a bottle of whiskey for comfort. But drinking only increased his fear. With frayed nerves, Mr. Ballestero said that he had prayed and reset his relationship with God.
“Faith stops you in these situations,” he said. “I learned something about myself. This trip has given me a lot of humility. “
A few weeks after the start of the trip, when his mood was bad, Mr. Ballestero said he was carried by wildlife viewing that felt like an omen.
He found comfort in a pod of dolphins swimming about 2,000 miles from his boat.
“You would go and come back,” he said. “And one day they seemed to be saying goodbye.”
One day he drank heavily, he spotted a large bird nearby. It turned out to be one skua, the bird after which his boat is named.
“It was like the bird told me not to give up to go on,” he said.
One day when he was fed up with canned food, Mr. Ballestero got a fishing rod and scanned a school of Mahi-Mahi. But he suddenly hesitated to cast out a line.
“I didn’t want to kill anyone. It felt like you were killing someone,” he said, “I used to be a fisherman, but after this experience, it’s hard to kill now.”
He ate canned tuna again.
As he approached America, a brutal wave rattled the boat about 150 miles from Vitória, Brazil, he said. This episode forced him to make an unplanned pit stop in Vitória, which added about 10 days to a trip he had expected for 75 days.
During this stop, Mr. Ballestero learned that his brother had told reporters in Argentina about the trip, delighting people who were bored and cramped at home. At the urging of friends, he created one Instagram account to document the last stage of the trip.
When he made it to his hometown of Mar del Plata on June 17, he was startled by the reception of the hero he received.
“When I entered my port, where my father had his sailboat, where he taught me so many things, and where I learned to sail, and where all of this started from, I got the taste of a mission that was accomplished,” he said.
A medical professional tested Covid-19 on the dock. He was allowed to step on Argentine soil within 72 hours of the test being negative.
Although he couldn’t celebrate his father’s 90th birthday in May, he made it home in time for Father’s Day.
“What I have lived is a dream,” said Ballestero. “But I have a strong desire to continue sailing.”
Ernesto Londoño contributed to this.