June 28, 2020 11:35 am
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Categories: Argentina Boats and Boating Cape Verde Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Juan Manuel Ballestero Men and Boys NY Times Sailboats and Sailing

BUENOS AIRES — Days after Argentina canceled 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.

“I didn’t want to stay like a coward on an island where there were no cases,” Mr. 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 on the planet, 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 to attend funerals.

Friends tried to dissuade Mr. Ballestero from embarking on the perilous journey, and the 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 Mr. 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.

ImageMr. Ballestero, left, with his brother and his father, who turned 90 while his son was on his voyage. 
Credit…Juan Manuel Ballestero

On April 12, the authorities in Cape Verde refused to allow him to dock at the island nation to restock his supply of food and fuel, said Mr. Ballestero.

Hoping he still had enough food to carry him through, he turned his boat west. With less fuel than he hoped for, he’d 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,” Mr. Ballestero said. “I thought, if it gets very close, I’ll shoot.”

Seafaring is a Ballestero family tradition.

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.

Mr. Ballestero has spent much of his life sailing, with stops in Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Bali, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Brazil, Alaska and Spain.

Credit…Juan Manuel Ballestero

He has tagged sea turtles and whales for conservation organizations and spent summers working as a skipper aboard boats owned by wealthy Europeans.

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


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  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 24, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


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

On a particularly trying day, he turned to a bottle of whiskey for solace. But drinking only increased his anxiety. With his nerves frayed, Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

Credit…Diego Izquierdo/Telam, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“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.

“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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 didn’t 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,” Mr. Ballestero said. “But I have a strong desire to keep on sailing.”

Ernesto Londoño contributed.

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