Cruise line seeks geeks for Perl diving

James and Jasmine Ownbey's wedding had it all: a cruise to Alaska, a glacier-top ceremony, and a week's worth of classes from some of the biggest names in the Perl programming world.

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James and Jasmine Ownbey's wedding had it all: a cruise to Alaska, a glacier-top ceremony, and a week's worth of classes from some of the biggest names in the Perl programming world.

The Ownbeys, who run a Web services company in Fayetteville, Ark., were among 100 techies that took part in the Perl Whirl, the inaugural Geek Cruise that combined a seven-night trip to Alaska with intensive courses from Perl language notables such as Randal Schwartz and Larry Wall.

"It's almost like going to sleep-away camp with these people," said Geek Cruises captain and chief executive Neil Bauman, a longtime programmer and computer magazine publisher.

Software such as Perl and Linux, once reserved for only the most technically minded, has become increasingly important to corporate IT managers and Web designers. The result is a boom in demand for intensive learning, creating a market apparenty large enough to support a tech-focused cruise.

Bauman has several more Geek Cruises on deck, including the Java Jam in November, XML Excursion in January 2001 and Linux Lunacy in October 2001, all to parts of the Caribbean, and the Database Discovery in June 2001 to Alaska's Inside Passage.

Bauman doesn't have his own fleet. Instead, he books time on ships from major cruise lines, primarily Holland America.

The cost of the excursions vary, with a $750 conference fee typical on top of the cruise fare, which ranges from just under $1,000 per person to more than $2,500, depending on destination and the type of room booked.

However, in many cases, companies are picking up the tab to send their workers on these seaward seminars. Northrop Grumman, Monsanto, Motorola and Fidelity Investments all have employees booked for Java Jam, Bauman said.

Many other attendees are self-employed or own their own business, like the Ownbeys. Already engaged, the Ownbeys decided to get married on the Perl Whirl, which kicked off on Memorial Day. But Jasmine Ownbey didn't let the nuptials interrupt her education, taking classes the whole week about Perl, a programming language used extensively in Web site creation to handle complex tasks, such as searches.

"You learn more in a relaxed environment," she said.

Even the morning of her May 31 wedding, she took part in Regular Expression Mastery, a seminar from Perl Journal columnist Mark-Jason Dominus.

"I ran straight from the class to the hairdresser," she said. "It was a really good way to thwart the nervousness."

Luxury learning
Bauman, whose company is based in Palo Alto, Calif., said he got the idea for Geek Cruises while on a Star Trek cruise to Alaska with his family a couple of years ago. He said he spent a lot of time on that trip just sitting on the deck reading a book on Perl.

"This is really an awfully nice place to read," Bauman recalls thinking. "You can get a lot done. Your mind is open."

He eventually broached the subject with a couple of leading names from the Perl lecture circuit and got several to sign up immediately. From there, Bauman said, it was relatively easy to attract other instructors.

For Linux Lunacy, Bauman has already lined up open-source luminaries such as Bruce Perens, Eric Raymond and Richard Stallman, along with Linuxcare co-founders Art Tyde and Dave Sifry.

The intersection of computer classes and the high seas has made for some interesting times, such as a seminar on CGI programming techniques during Perl Whirl.

"The class was interrupted by a breaching whale," Ownbey said. The group took a break in the middle of class to witness the rather unusual sight of a whale doing five or six complete somersaults.

Not all of the events were work, either. Bauman said the pub crawl was such a hit that he plans to repeat it on the upcoming Java Jam.

Bauman said he learned a few things from the first cruise, such as the need for more power strips. Although many ocean liners have Internet stations these days, they evidently are not prepared for scores of hard-core programmers.

Bauman has yet to make serious money from his venture, but he does have profitability in his sights. He calculates that he needs about 200 conference-goers to make a good profit, with about 70 needed just to cover the costs of the cruise.

Lincoln Stein, one of the instructors on the Perl Whirl, said he would do it again, although he would have preferred more time on land.

"I'm not much of a cruise aficionado," said Stein, a researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York who spent most of his free time working on his book. "It was definitely more work than vacation."

For Jasmine Ownbey, it was great to combine her wedding with a chance to meet her heroes in the Perl community. She said she can't wait to go again, though she hopes Bauman will plan a voyage soon to the Mediterranean.

What makes the combination of computer courses and cruises so great?

"It's tax deductible," Ownbey whispered.