Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Juan Manuel Ballestero pictured on his boat in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Thursday, June 18, 2020, crossed the Atlantic on a small sailboat, setting off from the port of Porto Santo in Portugal on March 24 and finally reaching Mar del Plata on Wednesday to be reunited with his parents after flights to Argentina were cut due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

Vicente Robles/The Associated Press

Days after Argentina cancelled all international passenger flights to shield the country from the new 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 said he loaded his 29-foot sailboat with canned tuna, fruit and rice and set sail in mid-March.

Story continues below advertisement

“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.

Story continues below advertisement

On April 12, 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.

Story continues below advertisement

From the time he was 3, 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 organizations and spent summers working as a skipper aboard boats owned by wealthy Europeans.

Story continues below advertisement

He bought his sailboat, an Ohlson 29 named the Skua, in 2017, hoping to take it on a loop around the world. It proved up to the task of traversing an ocean on a planet plunged into crisis mode.

“I wasn’t afraid, but I did have a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “It was very strange to sail in the middle of a pandemic with humanity teetering around me.”

Sailing can be a lonely passion, and it was particularly so on this voyage for Ballestero, who each night tuned into the news on a radio for 30 minutes to take stock of how the virus was rippling across the globe.

“I kept thinking about whether this would be my last trip,” he said.

The expansiveness of the ocean notwithstanding, Ballestero felt he was in a quarantine of sorts, imprisoned by an unrelenting stream of foreboding thoughts about what the future held.

“I was locked up in my own freedom,” he recalled.

Story continues below advertisement

On a particularly trying day, he turned to a bottle of whisky for solace. But drinking only increased his anxiety. With his nerves frayed, Ballestero said he found himself praying and resetting his relationship with God.

“Faith keeps you standing in these situations,” he said. “I learned about myself; this voyage gave me lots of humility.”

Several weeks into the trip, when his spirits were low, Ballestero said he was buoyed by wildlife sightings that felt like omens.

He found solace in a pod of dolphins that swam alongside his boat, on and off, for some 2,000 miles.

“They would go and come back,” he said. “And one day, they seemed to say goodbye.”

During a day when he had drunk heavily, he spotted a large bird cruising nearby. It turned out to be a skua, the bird his boat is named after.

Story continues below advertisement

“It was as if the bird was telling me not to give up, to keep going,” he said.

One day, when he tired of canned food, Ballestero got a fishing rod and scanned a school of mahi-mahi. But he had a sudden reluctance to cast out a line.

“I didn’t want to kill one. It felt like killing a person,” he said. “I used to be a fisherman, but after that experience it’s hard for me to kill now.”

He went back to eating canned tuna.

When he was approaching the Americas, a brutal wave rattled the boat some 150 miles from Vitória, Brazil, he said. That episode forced him to make an unplanned pit stop in Vitória, adding about 10 days to a trip he had expected to take 75 days.

During that stop, Ballestero learned that his brother had told reporters in Argentina about the voyage, which enthralled people who were bored and cooped up at home. At the urging of friends, he created an Instagram account to document the final leg of the trip.

When he made it to his native Mar del Plata, on June 17, he was startled by the hero’s welcome he received.

“Entering my port where my father had his sailboat, where he taught me so many things and where I learned how to sail and where all this originated, gave me the taste of a mission accomplished,” he said.

A medical professional administered a test for COVID-19 on the dock. Within 72 hours, after the test came back negative, he was allowed to set foot on Argentine soil.

While he did not get to celebrate his father’s 90th birthday in May, he did make it home in time for Father’s Day.

“What I lived is a dream,” Ballestero said. “But I have a strong desire to keep on sailing.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Coronavirus information
Coronavirus information
The Zero Canada Project provides resources to help you manage your health, your finances and your family life as Canada reopens.
Visit the hub
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies