Everyone got tested, but Alaska’s only cruise this year still came back with COVID-19 on board

A blue boat with white cabins on top is moored on a dock with mountains in the background.
The Wilderness Adventurer, a small Uncruise ship, docked in Juneau on April 23, 2020. On Aug. 1, the ship was the first tourism passenger ship to sail in Southeast Alaska during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jennifer Pemberton / KTOO)

The first and only cruise ship to sail in Southeast Alaska during the pandemic is back in Juneau, just four days after departing the capital city. On Tuesday, a passenger on the ship received a call that he had tested positive for COVID-19.

The Wilderness Adventurer, operated by Uncruise, left Juneau for a weeklong trip on Saturday. The company had taken a lot of precautions, and its COVID-19 safety plan had been approved by the state.

According to UnCruise CEO Dan Blanchard, all passengers were required to get tested for COVID-19 up to five days before traveling to Alaska and boarding the boat.

But on the third morning of the trip, the ship was anchored in a cove somewhere in the wilderness of Southeast Alaska. Blanchard says most of the guests were off the boat exploring, and some of them had cell phone service.

“And our guest received a call from a testing facility in Juneau, run by the state of Alaska, that their second test had come back positive,” he said.

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 issued to passengers on the Wilderness Adventurer on the first ship-based tourist trip of 2020. That ship turned around four days into the trip with a COVID-19 case on board. (Jennifer Pemberton / KTOO)

The passenger, from the Lower 48, was tested four days before flying to Juneau and had arrived with a negative test result in hand, the company said. It was a second test, done at the Juneau airport, that showed he was positive.

The guest notified the boat’s captain, who contacted the authorities. Then the company’s response plan went into effect. All passengers were quarantined in their cabins until the ship returned to Juneau.

In a Wednesday morning call with reporters, Blanchard said most of the Wilderness Adventurer’s guests arrived in Juneau the same day the trip departed. The passenger who tested positive arrived by plane some time before noon.

UnCruise rented out the Hangar ballroom — a private dining room at a local restaurant — to use as an “isolation area” prior to guests boarding the ship. This passenger was there by 3:00 or 3:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.

“Now this fellow did go out on the boardwalk and took a walk. And we know he dropped off some mail. And that’s what I know,” Blanchard said. “I don’t know any more details as far as where he went. That’s in the state’s hands right now.”

The vessel was back in Juneau by 7:30 Wednesday morning, and the ship’s 36 passengers are now checked-in to a local hotel for quarantine. The 30 crew members will quarantine on the vessel.

The state’s health department will advise the company on the quarantine, which Blanchard says could last anywhere from five days to two weeks.

The person who tested positive, along with his immediate travel companions, were tested on board, and those tests are off to the lab. Blanchard says the ship was carrying enough COVID-19 saliva test kits to test everyone on board twice.

No one on the ship has shown any signs or had any symptoms of an infection.

“I can tell you that the guests are bummed but understanding,” Blanchard said. “They’ve had four fabulous days truly.”

Blanchard says all guests will receive a credit for a future trip with UnCruise. But those vouchers won’t be good until next year.

The other four sailings the company had planned for the summer in Alaska have been canceled. Blanchard said that decision was a combination of what happened on this trip, plus the fact that the state recently changed its requirements for out-of-state travelers. Starting next week, Alaska will require travelers to have a negative test within three days of leaving home. Most test results take at least that long.

“So, the challenge for a guest is ‘Am I going to take off on the plane from the East Coast without having a test?’ And quite frankly, we don’t want to put the guests in that position,” Blanchard said.

UnCruise had tried to reimagine what travel in Southeast Alaska could look like in the face of a pandemic.

“Probably the two things that could have changed this situation. One is obvious: a vaccine. But the other is rapid testing,” he said.

Hopefully one of those two things will be available in 2021, and UnCruise will try again.