This Incredibly Nerdy Fan Cruise Has Inspired an Entire Subculture
“At first, a cruise didn't sound like something I would enjoy,” says singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, as I speak with her and collaborator Jonathan Coulton (nicknamed “JoCo”), also a famous musician-composer (especially on the Internet, and in so-called “nerd culture”). Mann's discussing the annual, all-inclusive Joco Cruise, founded in 2011 by Coulton and geek-music-comedy duo Paul & Storm. It's a sea-faring nerd-culture festival, on which Mann has now appeared in three consecutive years.
“Having [fans] and entertainer friends in one place, on a cruise ship, is so much fun,” says Coulton, also an NPR house musician, who gained a considerable online following in the aughts for his songs (one hit is called “Code Monkey”), and for his video-game scores. “The community is among the most polite, enthusiastic, fun-loving, creative bunch I know.”
The JoCo, which helps support the “geeks doing good” charity Worldbuilders, first sailed as a 375-person group mostly made up of subscribers from Coulton's newsletter. The group gathered on a pre-existing Holland America voyage from Fort Lauderdale to the Western Caribbean.
That first trip, mixing with everyday cruisers, went well, and the event has since grown to over 1,800 people, which now allows the producers to charter a whole ship for seven nights: Holland America's MS Oosterdam. JoCo's talent pool comes from the intersectional worlds of comedy, music, storytelling, comics, books, and podcasting.
This year, the lineup includes the founders as well as Aimee Mann, Netflix comedy sensation Maria Bamford, comedic actor Michael Ian Black, humorist John Hodgman, and many others.
On paper, the JoCo, which next embarks in February from San Diego to Mexico's Sea of Cortez, seems like the antidote to a 'basic' Princess cruise — especially for cruise virgins and the creative class. It even kicks off with a party at a San Diego comic-art gallery. But the cruise's social scene can seem hermetic, and originally Mann, and many others, didn't think they'd fit.
“There was literally no good reason for me to say yes to Jonathan's [first] invitation, except guilt,” Mann says, laughing. “I don't like groups. I'm antisocial. I don't like hanging out with people. I'm not a nerd, so I didn't know what to expect. And I get seasick.”
But Mann was glad she made the leap. “It was the most fun thing I've ever done,” she adds. “It's [now] the highlight of my year. I love the nerds.”
The JoCo is not just notable for its eclectic offerings: shows, writing and gaming events, cocktail parties, movies, open mics, even karaoke and dance parties. It's also spawned a multi-generation community of self-described “Sea Monkeys” (or JoCo regulars). At this point it's an actual subculture that mostly stays in touch online, and which has generated new relationships (platonic and romantic), along with smaller friend- or shared-interest groups that meet on land throughout the year.
Sea Monkeys even produce a so-called “Shadow Cruise.” This consists of hobby-specific get-togethers on the ship for cruisers who also might bring along gear (e.g., cosplay costumes, instruments for jam sessions, sewing machines, clay-firing ovens, and an array of games, digital and tabletop).
Sea Monkeys designed and now use a Twitter-like app to communicate with each other during trips, but they also communicate on message boards and in closed Facebook groups. They're quick not only to recommend new activities — iPhone bell choir, cosplay photo-session, or puzzle-hunts, anyone? — but to organize them with a certain seriousness and openness to newcomers.
“We allow the attendees to set up their own events, and we've had knitting circles, ballroom dance classes, a capella groups, and massive ukulele armies,” says Coulton. “[Sea Monkeys] create more content for themselves than we are able to create for them. So it's a really wide-ranging experience for people who like just about anything.” Mann even attended a panel called “Teach Aimee Mann How to be Nerd.”
“I was very curious about the nerd culture, and what it meant to be one,” she says. “They're adorable, fun, and interesting.”
JoCo Cruise does encourage some relaxation, and numerous SeaMonkeys say it's fine to laze by the pool (although the response is generally: “Why would you want to spend a whole day that way when there's so much to do together?”). Food can also differ from that of most cruises. One night the staff cooks dishes from their cultural backgrounds, and the stop in Loreto, Baja — a small town (or anti-Cabo) with a historic mission and cobblestone streets — stages a JoCo festival on land, including performances and dishes from local cooks. Formal nights on the ship are even still a thing, which to some may seem odd, but Sea Monkeys, by and large, love to dress up, and there's no pressure to wear anything specific.
Whether or not performers participate in the shared cruise experience or act just like the talent varies. But there are “Celebrity Office Hours,” and mixing with Sea Monkeys is certainly more authentic than it is in fan conventions, according to Storm.
“We have hospitality for performers — people do like to get away,” he says. “But the cruise is just a totally different way for [SeaMonkeys] to meet one another, the performers, and also to engage with new fans and old fans that they don't experience anyplace else.”
This year there are even a couple of naval architect Sea Monkeys who want to offer a seminar on how cruise ships work. Then there are "Helper Monkeys": those who volunteer to help run the cruise and community for which they pay good money.
Kate Cantrell, 43, is a consultant and the volunteer administrator of the Sea Monkey Facebook groups; she and her husband, a computer programmer for The Smithsonian in Greater Washington, D.C., have been on every Joco event since 2011.
“I'll joke that we need a vacation after our vacation, because I'm the kind of person who wants to go to all the shows, late-night panels, and special collaborations between performers you wouldn't see anywhere else because they've been able to take their time and bounce off of one another for a few days,” she says. “I am exhausted by the end of the week.”