Man Sails 86 Days Across the Atlantic to Reunite with Father, 90

What do you do when you’re prohibited from international air travel but can’t fathom being away from your aged father? Sail 12,000km across the Atlantic, of course.

Juan Manuel Ballestero lives on the small Portuguese island of Porto Santo. When Argentina cancelled all international flights in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he reasoned that the best alternative to reach his 90-year-old father was by sailing. Ballestero‘s voyage from Port Santo to Mar del Plata took 86 days. He arrived on June 17 to a celebrity’s welcome.

No stranger to the ocean, Ballestero, 47, was just three years old when he first experienced life at sea. He traveled aboard the fishing vessels that his father, Carlos Alberto Ballestero, captained at the time. Shortly after finishing school, he took a job on a sailing boat off the coast of southern Argentina. He later spent time sailing the world, with ports of call that included Sri Lanka, Hawaii, Venezuela, Bali, Spain, Costa Rica and Alaska. He’s worked in marine conservation and as skipper aboard yachts owned by wealthy Europeans.

Comfortable at sea, he bought his 29-foot sailboat used for this journey in 2017. He intended to loop the world with it.

When Ballestero learned that it could be indefinitely before he saw his family again, nothing seemed more important than to join them.

Juan Manuel Ballestero could have waited out the lockdown on a COVID-free island but instead he wanted to share the time with his family.


Even with his years of experience, sailing during a pandemic had its challenges. Portuguese authorities warned him that he may not be allowed re-entry if for any reason, he needed to return.

Three days into the voyage, Ballestero had a mild scare when he noticed a larger vessel seemingly trailing him. Fearing pirates, his only option was to travel as fast as possible. “I thought, if it gets very close, I’ll shoot.” Ballestero said. Thankfully, nothing happened.

Then on April 12, Ballestero attempted to dock in Cape Verde to restock on fuel and supplies. Authorities refused his entry, forcing him to continue more westward than he preferred. Left to feast on repetitive meals of canned tuna and fruit, he managed his fuel supply adequately until the next docking.

Later, while approaching the Americas, a brutal wave forced him to take an unplanned stop. The event added 10 days to his journey, which he initially expected to take 75 days.

To many people around the world, the decision to leave an island bearing no COVID-19 cases is an unlikely one. But Ballestero had no desire to live out uncertain times alone. In place of social distancing and self-isolation, Ballestero isolated himself in nature. “I was locked up in my own freedom,” he said.

Alone and at the mercy of the wind, Ballestero wished for company at times. Marine life helped to fill the void sporadically. A pod of dolphins accompanied him on and off for 3,000km. A skua paid a visit too. Coincidentally, that bird is also the name of his vessel. He took it as an omen and used it to keep his spirits high during the sometimes dark days. To stay up-to-date with the pandemic spiraling around the world, he tuned into the radio for 30 minutes each evening.

Juan Manuel Ballestero’s boat, Skua, had a visit from a bird of the same name.


By the time Ballestero arrived on Argentine soil, news had broke of the determined visitor. He received a hero’s welcome, and photographers, journalists and local supporters showed up. The inspiring story has made headlines around the world. Elated to have made it to his family’s home town, his first words on land were, “I did it! I did it!”

He was also greeted by a doctor who gave him a COVID-19 test at the dock. When the test returned negative 72 hours later, Ballestero was free to unite with his family, in time for Father’s Day.

Ballestero, left, with his brother and father. Photo: Juan Manuel Ballestero