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With no flights, man sails 9,000 km across Atlantic to see dad on Father’s Day

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A global lockdown due to the coronavirus couldn’t stop one man from crossing the Atlantic Ocean to see his dad on Father’s Day in a harrowing 85-day solo journey from Portugal to Argentina that he completed in a small sailboat.

Juan Manuel Ballestero, 47, was living in Spain but visiting a tiny island off mainland Portugal last March when international flights were grounded due to COVID-19. The veteran sailor says he refused to face “the end of the world” apart from his parents back in Argentina, so he packed up his 8.8-metre-long sailboat, the Skua, and set sail for home.

Ballestero ultimately travelled for 85 days and across roughly 9,000 kilometres on a voyage that would take him past the equator, through several storms and across the Atlantic Ocean alone — all so he could see his parents and brothers again.

“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.”

Ballestero prepared his Ohlson 29 sailboat by loading it up with canned tuna, rice, water, booze and simple rations, then he set out from Porto Santo, a tiny island in the ocean southwest of Portugal, on March 24.

Ballestero’s family say they were confident he could make the journey because he’d spent his entire career at sea, as both a fisherman and a skipper aboard various research vessels in different parts of the world. However, they didn’t always know where he was or if he was safe.

“The uncertainty of not knowing where he was for 50-some days very rough,” his father, Carlos Alberto Ballestero, told the Times. “But we had no doubt this was going to turn out well.”

The homesick sailor first travelled south from Porto Santo to Cape Verde, a Portuguese-speaking nation of islands, where he hoped to restock for his journey in mid-April. However, locals turned him away due to fears of the coronavirus, and he was forced to tighten his belt as he struck out into the open Atlantic en route to Argentina.

Ballestero says he’s spent many days on the open ocean in the past, but the solo trip was hard on him. He drank. He prayed. He panicked when he thought a distant boat was following him, only to realize later that it wasn’t.

He also marvelled at the wildlife around him, watching schools of fish pass the boat, and groups of dolphins swim alongside him for thousands of miles at a time. Ballestero later shared footage from the dolphins’ visit on Instagram.

He says he only once tried to catch a fish, but he gave up because he didn’t want to turn on the animals that had kept him company for so long.

“It felt like killing a person,” he said.

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