Like the rest of the international education community, our programs were affected by the global events that unfolded in March 2020.

It was a long few months, with information evolving every day about the global spread of the Novel Coronavirus. We watched as governments intensified their mitigation mandates by restricting international travel, closing schools, and limiting in-person social interactions.

We were in constant communication with our enrolled 2020 families throughout the spring, listening to their concerns while giving updates on our plans. We stayed patient for as long as we could but ultimately made the difficult but necessary decision to postpone what would have been our 35th ActionQuest summer in the British Virgin Islands. We couldn’t have been more in awe of the support and understanding our families displayed during this challenging period. Over sixty percent of our families selected to roll their program to 2021, reinforcing their commitment to giving their child the life-changing experience ActionQuest historically delivers.

While this is the story of ActionQuest’s 2020 summer, we also run a program called Seamester, a year-round academic semester at sea voyage for college and gap-year students. We’ve been running Seamester voyages successfully throughout the pandemic, and this experience has allowed us to develop time-tested strategies that we will build on for all programs in 2021.

In January of 2020, the students and staff aboard our 112ft schooner, S/Y Argo, left Cape Town, arriving in Barbados in late April to a very different set of news headlines. Sailing full time in the Caribbean, the crew aboard our 90ft schooner S/Y Ocean Star had better access to international news, so they saw the global situation unfold in real-time. It feels like a lifetime ago now, but those two voyages marked the start of our new normal.

How did we respond? Well, living and learning aboard self-sufficient sailing vessels, our teams have the unique ability to isolate for long periods. So, while we increased health protocols and limited excursions, we were not overly concerned from a health perspective. “Remote Learning” and “Distance Education” have always been central to the Seamester experience.

That said, in anticipation that border closures might restrict our ability to navigate freely, we chose to relocate our vessels to Antigua, the closest island providing good medical support and, if necessary, direct flights to the USA.

Our programs continued until the U.S. Department of State issued the global “Do Not Travel” directive, requesting that all U.S. citizens return home immediately or run the risk of becoming stuck overseas indefinitely. With the decision out of our hands, we made the painful announcement to our students that we would be continuing their semester remotely.

Since March, we’ve spent countless hours educating ourselves by researching Coronavirus and the viral infection it causes. We’ve evaluated the mitigation policies and procedures developed by governments and other organizations, tracking the adjustments they make as more scientific data becomes available. We’ve watched the strategies employed by the international community, particularly as they relate to testing, quarantine, and tracing as travel restrictions begin to ease.

We finalized our Covid-19 risk mitigation protocols in late spring and, while the British Virgin Islands did not open their borders (causing us to postpone all 2020 BVI voyages) on June 26, 2020, started to run programs aboard our schooners once again. Both S/Y Argo and S/Y Ocean Star sailed during the summer months, then set sail once again with our newest vessel, S/Y Vela, in September 2020, voyaging internationally with a full complement of 64 students. We’re happy to report that no student or staff has tested positive to date yet acknowledge that no Covid-19 protocol or strategy is infallible.

“We've always considered the ActionQuest experience to be more about the journey rather than the destination, so we believe that our ability to provide life-changing experiences during this challenging time is a result of the inherent flexibility and self-sufficiency that living, traveling, and learning aboard sailing vessels provide. ”

Mike Meighan - Executive Director

Here’s an overview of the risk mitigation protocols and procedures we’re using for current Seamester voyages. We feel it’s relevant to present them here as we’ll use these to develop the ActionQuest protocols closer to the summer.

We make our decisions around these over-arching strategies:

  • Reduce the possibility of an infected person joining the program
  • “QuaranTeam” within reach of definitive medical care before heading further afield (when applicable)
  • Limit opportunities for a crew member to become infected while underway

While these primary strategies will remain the same, the methods we employ to achieve them will likely change over time, perhaps considerably, based on the availability of vaccination, scientific data, and directives/requirements from airlines or governmental agencies.

Pre-Trip Protocols

The goal of our pre-trip protocols is to reduce the possibility of an infected person joining the vessel

1. 14-day pre-trip precautionary period
At present, we require that all students take part in a 14-day pre-trip precautionary period before joining our program. This is a condition of participation. Over the course of these 14 days, at an absolute minimum, students must follow the health requirements and guidelines set by their local, state, federal, or any other health authority or governmental organization. Living in different geographic locations, we recognize that guidelines may differ from student to student, yet we ask all students to err on the side of caution during this period by limiting the possibility of exposure. A student’s ability to join the program is absolutely determined by the personal decisions being made during this period of time, so our strong suggestion is “if in doubt, leave it out”, whether that be getting together with friends, eating in a restaurant, or even going for that last-minute dental check-up.

2. Negative Covid-19 PCR test
Within 72 hrs of traveling to the program, students are required to take a Covid-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test and receive a negative result. Rapid antigen tests will not be accepted. The results need to be presentable on an official document (electronic or otherwise) that clearly shows the following:

  • Laboratory name and contact details
  • Student’s name
  • Test taken, stating either PCR or RT-PCR
  • Date and time that the sample was taken
  • Negative result for Covid-19 or SARS-CoV-2

Please note that “72 hrs of traveling to the program” is defined as 72 hrs from the time that a student can definitively prove that they started traveling to the vessel, so the date and time of a student’s first flight is the benchmark typically used. Our experience shows that a 24-48hr testing turnaround is easily met when working through a primary health care provider. Another good resource for US-based students is the following user-generated list of centers that have met this requirement for travelers – https://testfortravel.com/

3. Submit the ActionQuest Pre-Trip Self Certification form and upload the negative test result
Within 24 hours of traveling to the embarkation point, students (and parents if a student is under the age of eighteen) are required to complete and submit our Pre-Trip Precautionary Self Certification Health Form. This form documents that over the preceding 14-day period:

  • The student has complied with their State or Country’s regulations and CDC/WHO best practices for social distancing etc., having had limited interactions with individuals other than those with whom they reside.
  • The student has taken proactive precautions during any other interaction with individuals with whom they do not reside.  This includes avoiding group gatherings, practicing social distancing and proper hygiene (handwashing, sanitizing, wearing a mask, etc.)
  • The student has taken their temperature daily and that it has continuously been within the range considered to be normal (98.6).
  • The student has not experienced any other symptom that may be associated with Covid-19, such as a dry cough, loss of taste or smell, etc.
  • That the student has not been in physical contact with anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19 within 28 days before the trip.

A sample of this form can be viewed HERE

Travel Day & On-boarding Protocols

Our pre-trip risk mitigation strategies culminate on travel day and during the onboarding process.

1. Mitigating risk during travel
We require students to take maximum personal health precautions while traveling to the program. This includes wearing a face mask, avoiding touching your face, wearing gloves and/or washing hands, and applying hand sanitizer frequently after touching common surfaces throughout the airport, aircraft, or any ground transportation.

2. Destination country arrival protocols
Prior to travel day, we will provide students and parents information on any actionable protocols or procedures being required by the destination country. We typically do this as part of the Pre-Trip Self-Certification Form. Specific requirements vary from county to country, but typically include any number of the following:

  • Pre-submission of a health data form to the Department of Health
  • Arrival health check
  • Presentation of proof of negative Covid-19 PCR test, taken within the time frame determined by the country
  • Arrival Covid-19 test (PCR or Antigen)

3. ActionQuest Onboarding Protocol
Upon arrival at the program start location, our students undergo an onboarding process, which, in the past, has included the following:

  • General health and temperature check – Students exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19 or having an elevated temperature will not be allowed to join the program until symptoms subside or another negative Covid-19 test is received
  • Review of the data submitted in the Pre-Trip Self-Certification Form
  • Review of the details on the negative Covid-19 PCR test
  • Change of clothes, full shower, wipe down of luggage

"QuaranTeam" Strategy

Once aboard, our current strategy incorporates an initial “QuaranTeam” period within reach of definitive medical care.

The duration of this period is often dictated by the health protocols of the destination country, and may even require additional Covid-19 tests at particular milestones. Irrespective of the country’s protocols, our goal is to restrict interactions to members of our own team over this period, remaining near definitive medical care until we feel confident that no one is infected. We do not undertake long sailing voyages or remote activities until our QuaranTeam is complete. Most of our programs are run aboard sailing vessels, and due to this unique environment, this QuaranTeam doesn’t negatively affect the programmatic experience as, aside from shore-side activities, we’re able to run our itinerary, academics, and scuba training during this period.

Our current QuaranTeam strategies are as follows:

  • 14-day period with daily health and temperature checks
  • 7-day period with daily health and temperature checks, and a negative Covid-19 test received upon completion of the seven days

The strategy currently suggested by the British Virgin Islands is as follows:

  • Covid-19 test test taken on arrival in the Territory
  • Submit proof of travel insurance that covers costs associated with Covid-19
  • All arriving tourists are required to wear a GPS tracking bracelet and download a tracking app to their smart phone
  • 4-day “QuaranTeam” period aboard with limited shoreside interraction, followed by a negative Covid-19 test
  • The fee for the above is $175 per person and once the final test results are received, tourists have complete access to the BVI

Carefully considered shore-side activities

The goal for the duration of the program is to limit opportunities for any student or staff to become infected

We understand that eradicating all risk of contracting Covid-19 during the trip is not feasible without destroying the nature of our program. That said, we know that we can limit the risk by employing the following strategies:

  • Daily health and temperature checks
  • Carefully considered and executed shore-side activities
  • If required (and if applicable), Covid-19 testing when traveling between countries

While ActionQuest excursions are typically more nature-based than touristy or urban, it makes sense to limit activities that put us in places that can be regarded as higher risk. Examples of this would be crowded, high-traffic areas that are indoors and/or harder to socially distance such as museums, restaurants, covered markets, etc.

Answering the difficult questions of “What if”

Naturally, students and parents want to know how we would respond to a suspected or diagnosed case of Covid-19 on our program. Given that most of our programs are mobile, and run aboard sailing vessels this isn’t an easy question to answer without examining the full range of possible variables. Specifically:

  • Is the individual showing symptoms commonly associated with Covid-19, or is there a positive diagnosis?
  • When is the suspected or diagnosed case occurring? Pre-trip, during the onboarding, during, or after the QuaranTeam period?
  • How ill is the individual? As we know, many people have limited symptoms or none at all. Others are affected more significantly, with some requiring medical care and hospitalization.
  • What’s our geographical location, and, as a result, what medical or emergency response resources are available to us? Ordinarily, sailing nearshore will provide more support than when we are further afield, yet some locations have better medical facilities than others. An additional consideration is the required health protocols of the country in which we are located.

Irrespective of the above factors, our response strategy would include:

  • Isolation and quarantine to the extent possible. This is difficult aboard the vessel, so we would likely relocate the individual to shoreside accommodation if possible. Depending on the severity of the symptoms and/or vessel schedule, it’s possible that we would require a parent/guardian to travel to the shoreside location to assist with their student during their recovery.
  • Close discussion with MedAire (our risk management partner) in addition to local health departments of the country in which we are located to ensure that we are following established protocols
  • Testing to establish a firm diagnosis. For health and safety reasons, a positive diagnosis of any individual would require dismissal from the vessel until the individual is infection-free. A known, positive diagnosis would result in widespread testing and an additional QuaranTeam period for the rest of the crew.
  • Careful monitoring of the health of the rest of the cohort. The crew may be required to disembark the vessel or move to separate accommodations to conduct a deep cleaning.

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