‘Faith Lets You Cross Oceans’: Sailor Treks 5,500 Miles to See Father Amid Pandemic

Juan Manuel Ballestero crossed the Atlantic to reunite with his family during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Juan Manuel Ballestero with his brother and father after the voyage.
Juan Manuel Ballestero with his brother and father after the voyage. (photo: Courtesy of Juan Manuel Ballestero.)

Like so many others around the world, 47-year-old Juan Manuel Ballestero was away from home when the coronavirus hit. He was staying on the small Portuguese island of Porto Santo when it was announced that all international passenger flights to his home country of Argentina were canceled.

Terribly worried about his elderly parents, he decided to something extraordinary: If he couldn’t fly home to be with his family, he would sail. 

When he told his friends of his plan to sail the Atlantic alone, they were shocked.

“My friends told me to take more time and think about it, that maybe it wasn’t a good idea,” Juan Manuel explained in a Skype interview. The authorities in Portugal then told him that they would be closing the port, so if he left, he would not be get back in: He was buying himself a one-way ticket.

But even though his head might have been thinking about the risks involved and what could go wrong, his heart had made the decision, and so for the next 85 days he made the 9,000-kilometer (5,592-mile) journey in his small sailboat across the Atlantic Ocean.

“I wanted to see my father. I wanted to be with him,” Ballestero said, speaking affectionately of his almost-90-year-old father, Carlos Alberto.

Crossing the Atlantic in a small boat is a mean feat at the best of times, but this voyage was even more challenging. On board there was only room for some basic essentials, such as canned tuna and rice.

It was while passing the equator that Ballestero ran into a serious problem: He ran out of fuel, forcing him to rely solely on wind. But for 10 days the wind didn’t blow, and the boat just drifted in the middle of the ocean. This was, of course, a dangerous and stressful time. “It was just me in the middle of a big ocean,” he recalled.

The lack of movement in the water caused another problem: Barnacles started to form on the hull of the boat, which, when the wind started to blow again, would slow it down because of friction. This forced the stranded sailor to perform a risky dive underwater to remove them by hand.

“Stuck in the middle of the ocean, and there is 5,000 meters of depth, and I have to jump out there to clean my boat. It was like an astronaut going out of the ship to fix the spacecraft. Everything can go wrong down there.”

It was during these tough days that Ballestero relied on his faith. “I believe more in God now,” he said. “He came to help me. There is a whole universe out there, and you can see it pretty easy at night. I started praying.”

The epic voyage was also peppered with many beautiful moments, such as enjoying the starry sky at night, or when dolphins would swim right along beside his boat for miles. “They stuck with me for almost all of the Northern Hemisphere, sailing by the boat. It was fantastic to have that company.”

After 85 days, Ballestero was reunited with his family in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “Finally, I’m here, Dad. ‘You look good,’ I told him. ‘You look good!’” he recalled with joy.

After an emotional reunion with his family, Ballestero uploaded to social media a picture of him, his brother and father with the caption “Mission accomplished. Faith lets you cross oceans.”

When asked about this he smiled and said, “Everyone can do what they want, if you believe in yourself and believe in God.”

When asked, “Would you do it all again, Juan?” — without hesitation — came the reply: “Yes, definitely!”

Colm Flynn is the EWTN News Rome correspondent. He is currently based in New York City.