The first Alaska cruise of the COVID-19 pandemic is underway

The Wilderness Adventurer, an Uncruise Adventures boat, tied up in Juneau on July 31, 2020.
The Wilderness Adventurer, an Uncruise Adventures boat, tied up in Juneau on July 31, 2020. On Aug. 1, the ship was the first tourism passenger ship to sail in Southeast Alaska during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Jennifer Pemberton / KTOO)

There’s going to be an Alaska cruise season after all, but it’s a far cry from the 1.4 million passengers that were expected before the pandemic hit.

Over the weekend, the Wilderness Adventurer, a 60-passenger boat, left Juneau on a weeklong trip. There will be four more trips just like it this summer. After that, the next sailing of any kind isn’t on the books until 2021.

It’s not just a little bit ironic that the lone company doing ship-based trips from Juneau this year is called UnCruise.

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Back in April — when the first cruise ship of the season should have arrived in Juneau — the season had been pushed back to at least July, but hundreds of thousands of passengers still had tickets for those trips. For a small company like UnCruise, so much was up in the air that CEO Dan Blanchard couldn’t even comment.

But over the past three months he came up with a plan, and now UnCruise’s ship the Wilderness Adventurer is the only one sailing this year at all. It’s doing five cruises, starting and ending in Juneau. The first one is set to leave Saturday evening. And Blanchard says he’s anxious.

“I always feel a little anxious the date the first boat goes out, whether it’s in April or on August 1,” he said. “And you know, back when there were four or five other small ship companies that were going to be here locking arms with us, it was a little easier. But now, as we’re the only one and you’re in the spotlight, that kind of builds its own anxiety.”

Portrait of Uncruise CEO Dan Blanchard wearing an Uncruise face mask
UnCruise Adventures CEO Dan Blanchard on July 31, 2020. He’s wearing a UnCruise face mask like the ones that will be issued to passengers on the Wilderness Adventurer on the first ship-based tourist trip of 2020. (Photo by Jennifer Pemberton / KTOO)

Blanchard is wearing an UnCruise-branded face mask, just like the ones they’ll issue to all of their passengers.

There’s plenty of mitigation in place. Each trip this summer will have 37 guests max. That’s more than a 40% reduction from normal. All passengers have to get tested for COVID-19 before they come to Alaska. And they’ve been asked to book their flights for the same day the ship leaves.

There will be temperature checks for everyone on the boat, every day. There will be no buffets. And most of the meals this summer will get boxed up to-go rather than served in a dining room.

UnCruise has always done things differently from other cruise lines. They’re high end, with customers who want trips focused on adventure and wilderness. Passengers get off the boat to go birding or to watch bears eating salmon or to go sea kayaking in front of a glacier.

“Our whole thing is be safe by not only good COVID practices, but get out in the wilderness in small groups and socially distance in small groups,” said Blanchard. “So to do that, we brought on extra expedition staff, even though our numbers are greatly reduced.”

UnCruise isn’t the only small ship operator in Alaska. There were others trying to pull off what Blanchard is doing this summer. But ultimately, the city assemblies of port communities in Southeast Alaska couldn’t get on the same page about what they would, or could, require of these companies. And many of them canceled their seasons.

So UnCruise decided its trips would only dock in Juneau and make other stops in uninhabited places.

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“In those early assembly meetings, the community was very concerned about, a boat goes out and visits four or five small towns and then comes back, and what’s the potential there?” he said. “And so we were, we saw that writing on the wall and realized ‘Well, you’re talking about what we are!’”

In other words, UnCruise and its flexible itineraries are built for social distancing.

It wasn’t hard to find customers. Lots of UnCruise passengers still wanted to do their Alaska dream vacations this summer.

Blanchard says he only had to issue refunds to 13% of his customers this year. The rest are either booked on these 5 trips or took vouchers for 2021.

Back in April, Blanchard — like everyone else — wasn’t looking very far into the future. Now he’s starting to make plans, not just for the rest of this season and not just for 2021, but for a future where he knows the tourism industry will have been transformed by this pandemic.

“If I were reading the writing on my crystal ball, I would say that there’s going to be more demand for small vessels like ours under 100 passengers, not less,” he said.

But for now, it’s still one day at a time. Juneau’s only sunny spell of the summer is about to come to an end, so at least the few hundred passengers that come this year will get to experience Juneau’s infamous weather.