Last March, as the covid-19 pandemic led to mass cancellations of flights across the globe, Juan Manuel Ballestero was in Porto Santo, Portugal onboard Skua, his 29-foot Swedish-built Ohlson 29 sailboat pondering when he would be again be with family in Argentina.
As reports worsened, Ballestero thought of his father, about to turn 90 and his desire to return home intensified. So, the veteran seaman loaded Skua with food and pointed his bow west, setting sail in mid-March.
As reported in The New York Times, Ballestero was told by Portuguese authorities that if he got into trouble and had to turn back, he might not be welcomed. He set off anyway.
“I bought myself a one-way ticket and there was no going back,” he said.
He was well-prepared for the journey. A veteran captain, Ballestero has been at sea since he was 18, working as a commercial fisherman off the remote Patagonian coast, and later piloting vessels in the Med for wealthy clientele.
A stop in the Cape Verde islands was dissuading, as he was refused entry to restock on fuel and food. Figuring he had enough supplies, he pushed forward.
Ballestero listened to news reports for 30 minutes each evening to take stock on how the pandemic was making its way across the globe.
“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.”
Although used to life at sea, the pandemic weighed heavily on the sailor. He told the Times that pods of dolphins that seemed to travel with him on and off for 2,000 miles and a siting of his vessel’s namesake, the predatory skua seabird, helped to affirm his mission.
“It was as if the bird was telling me not to give up, to keep going,” he said.
As he approached the South American landmass, a rogue wave caused enough damage to force him to Vitória, Brazil for repairs. It was there that he learned his brother had told fellow Argentinians about his journey.
Eighty-five days later, he pulled into the Argentine harbor of Mar del Plata on June 17 where he was welcomed by his family — but was only allowed to deboard for a covid-19 test, which is documented on Ballestero’s Instagram page.
After the test came back negative, he was allowed off the boat. His father had turned 90, but they were able to celebrate Father’s Day together.