One small U.S. cruise operator plans to resume sailings this weekend. Really

Jul 30, 2020

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The comeback of cruising in North America finally is at hand.

Sort of. In a small way.

One of North America’s smallest cruise brands, UnCruise Adventures, is about to restart operations this weekend in Alaska with one small vessel.

“It’s going to happen,” UnCruise Adventures’ CEO Dan Blanchard told TPG late Wednesday in an exclusive interview. “Most of our guests are coming in on Saturday; some on Friday.”

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There have been several false starts this summer for a comeback of small-ship cruising in North America, with some trips canceled just days before departure. But Blanchard said the company’s 60-passenger Wilderness Adventurer has a green light to sail out of Juneau late Saturday on a seven-night, adventure-focused trip to remote parts of Southeast Alaska.

“The Coast Guard signed off today,” Blanchard said from his office in Juneau, which isn’t far from where the Wilderness Adventurer is waiting for its first passengers.

To allow for social distancing, the vessel only will sail with 38 passengers.

“We’re doing a lot to ensure it is as safe as possible,” Blanchard said, ticking off such things as enhanced cleaning on board and daily temperature checks for passengers and crew.

Assuming the trip isn’t called off at the last minute, it will mark a major turning point in efforts to get at least some small cruise vessels back into operation in North American waters.

Related: How to book a cruise with points and miles 

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)

With the exception of two small sailing boats in Maine, which aren’t considered cruise vessels, no passenger vessels of any kind that offer multi-night cruises have resumed operations on the continent since cruising shut down in mid-March.

For now, UnCruise Adventures is one of just a handful of cruise operators that even is allowed to restart trips in North America. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which effectively regulates passenger ship travel in North America through its jurisdiction over U.S. waters, has issued a “no-sail” order for most cruise vessels. But the CDC has exempted the very smallest vessels such as those operated by UnCruise Adventures from the order.

In theory, small vessels with just a few dozen passengers on board aren’t nearly as likely to become coronavirus hot spots as large vessels packed with thousands of people.

Still, even the smallest of cruise vessels in North America — small riverboats on the Mississippi River complex, for instance, and coastal cruise boats on the Chesapeake Bay — have had a tough time resuming trips this summer as ports shy away from allowing tourist ships of any kind to visit.

That’s been the case even in places such as Alaska, where coronavirus case counts have been far lower than in other parts of the country.  As of Thursday, Alaska only had recorded 3,440 confirmed cases of the illness. The world’s biggest cruise hub, Florida, by contrast, had recorded more than 450,000 confirmed cases.

While Alaska is officially open to tourists this summer (if they can show a negative COVID-19 test), several small-ship cruise operators including American Cruise Lines have called off plans to resume trips in recent weeks after getting push-back from ports that are at the core of their itineraries.

Related: Alaska faces an entire year with almost no tourists 

But UnCruise Adventures is in a relatively rare position to restart at least some operations. Unlike most other North American cruise companies, it doesn’t make port visits 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.

“Our whole model is based on small groups, and (being) outdoors and away from the boat almost all day,” Blanchard noted. “That does put us at an advantage.”

Related: A guide to Alaska cruises for every type of traveler 

Uncruise Alaska Glacier Bay
UnCruise Adventures vessels carry kayaks for passenger use as well as skiffs for exploring and landings. (Photo courtesy of UnCruise Adventures)

Blanchard said the trip starting Saturday would include two days of exploring in Glacier Bay National Park, a day in icy Tracy Arm Fjord and a day at Admiralty Island. The latter is home to the highest density of brown bears in North America.

“There is a lot of bear activity right now,” Blanchard said.

There also will be a day in Frederick Sound looking for humpback whales, which Blanchard said are prolific in the area.

Blanchard said he’s added two more expedition guides to the sailing so that passengers can spend even more time off the vessel on outdoorsy adventures than is typical — part of a strategy to keep passengers socially distanced by keeping them spread out on multiple excursions.

Related: The 6 best shore excursions in Alaska 

The extra guides will allow for additional sunrise bird-watching outings and all-day kayak trips that depart before breakfast, for instance.

“Guests all have outside cabins with windows and doors they can open, and we’re keeping companionway doors open to keep fresh air flow through the vessel,” he noted. “But the biggest thing for us (for social distancing) is let’s just amp up what we do best, what our guests come here for, which is more opportunities to get out.”

Or, put another way, it’ll be “the most adventurous trip that we’ve ever had,” Blanchard said.

Even before Alaska mandated that tourists get a COVID-19 test before arriving in the state, Blanchard had been planning to require one for passengers. He’s also requiring that passengers wear masks when in close proximity, and the crew will be wearing masks, too.

“The onboard experience will be a lot like going to a restaurant right now,” he said. “You go down to your table with a mask on and when you eat you unmask. You will unmask after you’ve been dropped off on shore (for a hike), but on the skiff, everyone is masked up.”

Related: A guide to visiting Alaska in the midst of COVID-19 

He said a couple of crew members have been assigned to continuously clean every surface on the vessel from top to bottom in a cycle that takes about three hours. Once they finish, they start again, he said. In addition, breakfasts and lunches, which used to be buffets, will now be table served. And the restriction on passenger capacity is a notable change — a reduction of about 33%.

While the COVID-19 test just before sailing is a first line of defense against the illness spreading on board, the additional onboard measures are important as a back-up, Blanchard suggested. The COVID-19 test must be taken within three days of arrival.

“The real challenge is (a passenger) can take the test and still get (the illness) later,” he said.

What the line is doing onboard “is kind of strict, but the guests that are traveling right now get it.”

Blanchard said passengers coming for the trip understood they were traveling in a time of COVID-19, when there still was some risk of illness that goes with venturing away from home.

Blanchard said Wilderness Adventurer would be the only vessel the company operates in Alaska this summer. It’ll offer five departures over the next five weeks. In a typical summer, the line has six or seven of its eight vessels operating in Alaska in the summer.

Related: The best credit cards for booking cruises

The line also hopes to operate four departures of a smaller vessel, the 22-passenger Safari Quest, in the Pacific Northwest starting in mid-September.

UnCruise Adventures isn’t the first cruise operator in the world to resume sailings. A handful of cruise lines — mostly river lines — already have restarted sailings in Europe, where coronavirus case counts have come down significantly in recent months. For now, the trips only are available to local travelers from select European countries.

In part due to the CDC’s “no-sail” order, most major North America-based cruise lines including Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line have canceled all sailings well into the fall. Only brands that operate the smallest vessels have been looking at an earlier comeback.

Blanchard said all the trips that UnCruise has on its schedule are heavily booked.

For those who go on them, it will be an unusual experience in more ways than one. For starters, with the passenger capacity reduced, the crew-to-passenger ratio will be higher than it’s ever been on the ship, resulting in a more intimate experience.

Blanchard said the ship would sail with a crew of 29, which is one more than in a normal year.

But the biggest difference for passengers may be that they will see Alaska at a time when it is uncrowded in a way it hasn’t been for decades.

“They are going to see Alaska like none of us are ever going to have the opportunity again,” Blanchard said.

Stories to help you plan your next cruise:

Featured image courtesy of UnCruise Adventures

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