By: Scott Way
Juan Manuel Ballestero is not your average sailor. When the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting down international flights out of Portugal where he lives, Ballestero wanted nothing more than to see his elderly parents in Argentina. With his father's 90th birthday approaching, and with travel restrictions looming, he hatched a plan to make a visit possible.
An an avid sailor, Ballestero figured if he could get to Argentina by sea, he could eventually fly back to Portugal by air. Knowing that air travel could soon to be restricted, and with the possibility of ports also being shut down, he figured making the 5,600 trip to Portugal by boat was his best option.
His instincts, and his timing, were right. By the time he was ready to leave, international flights were banned. On top of that, authorities in the tiny Portuguese island town of Porto Santo where he lives told him that if he left, he could not return. The small village wasn't yet affected by the coronavirus, and their plan was to quarantine the island indefinitely. For Ballestero, it would be a one way trip.
“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.”
A few days later, after provisioning his 29-foot sailboat Skua with enough fruit, rice, canned tuna, and wine to last the planned 75 day trip, Ballestero took off for Argentina. Trusting his faith, he set sail in mid-March, hoping to reach his home port of Mar del Plata in time for his father's birthday.
Adrift in the Atlantic
Like many grand adventures, Ballestero’s voyage wasn’t short on hardship or danger. As his food supply dwindled authorities at the Cape Verde port where he'd planned to restock refused him entry. Then after passing the equator, he ran out of fuel, relying solely on wind power for the remainder of the trip. By day 38, he ran out of wine.
To top it off, the wind quit, leaving him idle for 10 days mid-journey. During that time barnacles began to grow on the hull—which would create drag and slow him down. Needing to stay as efficient as possible, Ballestero dove under the vessel and scraped them off, risking a shark attack in the process.
As the voyage dragged on, Ballestero’s faith was understandably challenged, but he never lost hope. “I wasn’t afraid, but I did have a lot of uncertainty. It was very strange to sail in the middle of a pandemic with humanity teetering around me,” he told The Times. “Faith keeps you standing in these situations.”
While he endured countless adversities, the trip also afforded him glimpses of Mother Nature’s grace as well. A playful pod of dolphins joined him for much of the last leg of the journey, providing him with welcome company while racing alongside him.
Father’s Day Reunion
It took a full 85 days for Ballestero to reach his home port of Mar del Plata in Argentina, and while he missed his father's birthday he did arrive just in time for Father's Day. Upon entering the port, he was tested for COVID-19 and cleared. Exhausted but ecstatic, Juan Manuel had completed an epic journey to get back home.
You can follow along with Juan Manuel's adventures on Instagram.
You can also catch a great interview with Juan Manuel to hear his side of the adventure below: