The first US cruise company to resume sailings is having a COVID crisis — just 3 days after restarting service

Aug 6, 2020

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The first cruise out of a U.S. port since the COVID crisis began is being cut short after a passenger tested positive for the illness.

UnCruise Adventures late Tuesday said its 60-passenger Wilderness Adventurer was heading back to Juneau, Alaska, four days ahead of schedule, and passengers would be transferred to a local hotel upon arrival to undergo a state-mandated quarantine.

The company has cancelled all remaining sailings of the ship for the year.

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“We are focusing all efforts on care of the guests, crew and the local community”, UnCruise Adventures owner and CEO Dan Blanchard said in a statement. “This is very discouraging news and not what we had hoped for, but we’ll deal with it professionally. The guests are taking the news well, and the crew has executed our contingency plan quickly”.

Wilderness Adventurer was just three days into a seven-night, adventure-focused cruise around Southeast Alaska when UnCruise Adventures got the word that a passenger had tested positive for COVID-19.

UnCruise Adventures operates adventure-focused trips in Alaska on small vessels such as the Wilderness Adventurer. (Photo courtesy of UnCruise Adventures)
UnCruise Adventures operates adventure-focused trips in Alaska on small vessels such as the Wilderness Adventurer. (Photo courtesy of UnCruise Adventures)

The line said the passenger received a phone call Tuesday with notification of a positive COVID-19 test that he had taken before boarding the ship on Saturday. At the time the call came in, the  Wilderness Adventurer was anchored in a secluded harbour while offboard activities were underway.

All travellers heading to Alaska are required to show a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival in the state, and the passenger had produced such a negative test result. He had taken the test within five days of travelling to the state.

It was a second test administered after the passenger arrived in Juneau to board the Wilderness Adventurer that came back positive.

UnCruise said passengers on Wilderness Adventurer have been restricted to their cabins while the vessel travels back to Juneau.

No passengers or crew members are showing symptoms of illness, the company said.

UnCruise Adventures was the first U.S. cruise operator to attempt a return to operations since cruise lines worldwide halted departures in March. The company operates very small, adventure-focused vessels that carry fewer than 100 passengers. This made it exempt from a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “no-sail” order that currently is keeping larger vessels from sailing in U.S. waters.

The CDC “no-sail” order only applies to vessels designed to carry more than 250 passengers and crew.

UnCruise Adventures is the fourth cruise company around the world to attempt a restart to cruising in recent weeks only to be caught up in a COVID-related crisis.

The situation on Wilderness Adventurer is unfolding just five days after one of the first cruise ships in Europe to resume operations experienced a significant coronavirus outbreak.

Norwegian expedition cruise company Hurtigruten’s 535-passenger Roald Amundsen arrived in Tromsø, Norway, on Friday with four sick crew members who later tested positive for COVID-19. Another 32 crew members and at least nine passengers have since tested positive.

The four sick crew members have been hospitalized.

The Roald Amundsen had just finished its second sailing since resuming operations, a seven-night trip out of Tromsø to the Arctic’s wildlife-filled Svalbard archipelago.

Hurtigruten has cancelled all upcoming sailings of the vessel and two others that it had brought back into service through at least the end of September.

Over the weekend, a second cruise vessel — the French Polynesia-based Paul Gauguin — experienced a COVID scare after a passenger on board tested positive.

Related: Did cruise lines try to return to service too soon? 

The 332-passenger ship, operated by Tahiti-based Paul Gauguin Cruises, was just three days into its first sailing with international passengers since the line stopped departures four months ago.

After the COVID-19 case was discovered, the Paul Gauguin returned early to its home port of Papeete, Tahiti, and passengers on the vessel were confined to their cabins while they underwent testing. The cruise was cancelled.

A third cruise ship, SeaDream Yacht Club’s SeaDream I, is in the midst of a COVID crisis that began on Tuesday after a passenger tested positive. The 112-passenger vessel was sailing along the coast of Norway and quickly returned to the port of Bodø, Norway. Passengers have been quarantined in their cabins.

SeaDream, Hurtigruten and Paul Gauguin Cruises have been at the forefront of efforts to bring back cruising in Europe and the South Pacific, where coronavirus cases are relatively low.

Hurtigruten in June became the first line to resume ocean cruises anywhere in the world when it began offering voyages to Norway out of Hamburg, Germany. It added cruises to Svalbard on the Roald Amundsen and the 335-passenger Spitsbergen in July.

Paul Gauguin Cruises was the first line to offer cruises in the South Pacific and also the first line in the world to welcome back Americans on trips.

SeaDream has offered some of the first cruises along the coast of Norway.

The three lines are relative outliers in the cruise industry when it comes to resuming service. Most major cruise brands, including Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess Cruises, have cancelled all sailings well into the fall. Some lines such as Crystal Cruises don’t plan to resume operations until January at the earliest.

UnCruise Adventures was thought to be in a relatively solid position to restart at least some operations. Unlike most other North American cruise companies, it doesn’t make port visits with interactions with other people a big part of its itineraries. Instead, its focus is on the Great Outdoors. The company is known for outdoorsy trips into wilderness areas where days are spent doing things like hiking, kayaking and wildlife-watching.

On an UnCruise Adventures trip, the vessel essentially serves as a floating adventure platform that can get you into the most remote areas — in a very small-group setting. The vessels carry skiffs for exploring and landings, kayaks, paddleboards and other toys.

UnCruise Adventures had implemented a wide range of health and safety measures on Wilderness Adventurer for this week’s sailing that included enhancing cleaning of the vessel, a mask-wearing requirement in many circumstances, health screenings for passengers and crew, and an end to buffet meals. The ship was operating at a significantly reduced capacity to allow for social distancing. Just 37 passengers were on board.

Related: Coronavirus claims another cruise line — the third in a month

UnCruise Adventures had set up a contingency plan for just such an event as happened Tuesday that includes quarantining passengers in a hotel in Juneau and crew on the ship. The company will pay all costs associated with the hotel and meals for passengers during the quarantine.

“With the spotlight on the cruise and small boat industry, we understand there are risks in operating and travel in general. With months of preparation, we were still able to pivot quickly in response to this event”, Blanchard said. “We wish to thank those that have worked rapidly to isolate and implement the appropriate processes as we determine the next steps”.

Featured image courtesy of UnCruise Adventures

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