You get the JoCo Cruise, and it’s an annual gathering for those who love sci-fi, games with many-sided dice and the musician Jonathan Coulton.
It is the first concert of the JoCo Cruise 2019, and things are going so wrong. The musicians can’t hear themselves sing. Instruments drop out at random. One of the performers, Jim Boggia, has lost his voice.
Jonathan Coulton, the singer-songwriter for whom the cruise is named, grouses that it is a “train wreck on a boat.”
They carry on, trying to wrestle a show from the mess. Mr. Boggia starts playing “When You Wish Upon a Star” on his ukulele and raspily invites us all to sing along. The assembled hundreds join in a mass mumble, but one woman’s voice stands out and confidently rises, clear and lovely. Paul Sabourin, another of the performers, hops off the stage and hands her a microphone. The performers complete the song to rousing cheers.
I spot the singer. She is wearing extravagantly long elf ears.
Now in its ninth year, the JoCo Cruise is a grand annual gathering of the nerd tribe. You may not have heard of Mr. Coulton, who left his job writing software in 2005 to explore a music career, but he has built a fervid online community of fans. He writes quirky, funny and often sneakily touching songs that play off geeky themes, including “Re: Your Brains,” about the guy who works in the office down the hall from you and who is a zombie now, and “Skullcrusher Mountain,” about a mad scientist trying to woo a woman his assistant, Scarface, has abducted. (Sample lyric: “I made this half-pony half-monkey monster to please you/But I get the feeling that you don’t like it/What’s with all the screaming?”). Mr. Coulton is also the in-house musician for the NPR game show “Ask Me Another,” and wrote the end credits song, “Still Alive,” for the best-selling video game Portal.
The JoCo Cruisers are here to hear music from him and the other performers, sure, but there’s more: For lovers of science fiction and fantasy there are novelists giving talks and being generally smart and funny, there are stand-up comics, some journalists and even an astrophysicist giving a late-night lecture on when and how the universe could end. Most of the performers are what Felicia Day, the actor and writer, calls “situationally famous”: not recognized on the street, but superstars at places like Comic-Con and on the internet. The cruise also caters to a broad range of fascinations, including board games with many-sided dice, tech, crafts, cosplay and a zillion fandoms.
At this point, some readers — maybe you, we’re not judging — might be thinking that if they found themselves dropped into the middle of all this, they would be tempted to jump over the railing into the wine-dark sea, seeking the sweet release of death. But there are 2,000 people here, having a blast. This year, JoCo sold out the entire Oosterdam, a Holland America Line ship. It departed in early March from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a weeklong trip with stops in Half-Moon Cay in the Bahamas, and Tortola, part of the British Virgin Islands, as well as San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The rise of the ‘affinity cruise’
A nerd cruise might sound very specialized, but specialization is a big part of cruise travel, said Michael Driscoll, editor in chief of Cruise Week, an industry publication. Affinity cruises, as they are called, are “a huge component” of the cruise business that is all but “indestructible to the business trends.” Conservatives can head out to sea with The National Review, while liberals can set sail with The Nation; sites like Theme Cruise Finder have trips that cater to every conceivable interest. The JoCo cruise is often referred to as “nerd summer camp at sea,” said Paul Sabourin, half of the comedy-music team Paul and Storm and one the four people who plans and runs each cruise. The common thread, he said, is “indoor-kid things.”
It is a colorful crowd, literally. Many of the sea monkeys — the name is a play on a Coulton song, Code Monkey, about a lovesick software writer — stand out in the everyday world, with their flamboyantly dyed hair and extensive and intricate tattoos. There is a healthy contingent of LGBT folks, as well. As I boarded the Oosterdam, I felt a little like an outsider, with my graying, undyed hair and conspicuous lack of tattoos. But I soon realized that my fellow passengers were not significantly more eye-catching than are a fair number of my co-workers and also realized there were plenty of dull folks like me, including families with children, blending into the background.
“For people on the far sides of the bell curve, this is a once-a-year opportunity to be themselves — and it’s heartwarming to watch,” said Anye Shafer, a software architect from the Dallas area on her fourth cruise. “You can be — except, maybe a serial killer — anything you want to be, and people will take you at face value, and accept you for who you are.”
Jenny Ross, a fifth-time sea monkey, said activities all over the ship during the week share one trait: enthusiasm. “I’m guaranteed that no matter what room I walk into, I will find people who are passionate, people who are knowledgeable, people who are excited to be doing whatever they are doing,” she said. Ms. Ross and her husband, Chris, a software engineer with Microsoft, leave the children with their parents for a week while he plays board games and enjoys the music, and Jenny, who left the software world to raise the children, geeks out on puzzles and acts as an “ambassador” to first timers, inevitably known as “new monkeys.” She wore a pink sash that read “Ambassador,” but it was not as eye-catching as her dark skirt, which was webbed with small lights, giving the impression of a starlit night. The couple also attached tiny hats to their hair with bobby pins; He, a red fez; she, a gold party hat.
They took a more typical cruise some years before, and “we were almost the only people under 50, and the onboard entertainment was not meant for us,” Ms. Ross said, imitating the announcer: “Make sure to stick around for Bingo — it’s the height of stimulation!” She laughed. “I like this one better. I don’t get weird looks for having a tiny hat on my head.”
The cruise can be intensely social, with built-in conversation starters. Everyone’s name tag has room to write down something to “ask me about . . . ” So as people pass in the buffet, topics wander by that include “Dungeons and Dragons,” “CCL” (Citizens’ Climate Lobby), “Anxiety and Depression,” “Baking!” and “My Bone Spurs.”