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This geeky cruise is like Comic-Con on the high seas

On Jonathan Coulton's JoCo Cruise, board games, cosplay and nerd celebs rule the ocean. Where else can you see John Hodgman jogging around the top deck?

Bonnie Burton/CNET

Cruises aren't my thing. The idea of being trapped on a floating hotel with the same people for a week never appealed to me. Plus, I don't know how to swim, so I'm convinced one big wave would send me toppling off the ship to a Titanic-style death.

But after my recent experience as a performer on the geek-centric JoCo Cruise, I've changed my seaworthy tune. I could live on that ship with my fellow nerds forever, playing non-stop RPGs and ukuleles, feasting at the all-hours taco bar and drinking my weight in piña coladas while dressed as a Star Trek ensign.

Hoop skirts, wigs, mustaches and fez hats were abundant during the JoCo Cruise formal night. 

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Before embarking on the JoCo Cruise, you should know who Jonathan Coulton is, since he started the whole thing. Coulton is a 47-year-old ex-computer programmer who became a successful singer/songwriter and performs catchy tunes about everything from zombies to Shop-Vacs.

Eight years ago, Coulton invited his fans, along with his favorite musicians, artists, authors, actors and comedians, for a weeklong cruise for geeks. Think Comic-Con on the high seas.

The first JoCo Cruise, as it was dubbed, was so successful Coulton made it an annual event. For this year's cruise in February, I was invited as a special guest (performing comedy and leading Star Wars craft workshops). I joined 1,600 other Sea Monkeys, as passengers are called, on Holland America's ms Oosterdam cruise ship for a weeklong voyage from San Diego to Baja California and Mexico, and back.

The first thing you notice on a JoCo Cruise is that Sea Monkeys aren't the older retirees typically associated with cruises. JoCo Cruise describes its passengers as "technophiles, tabletop gamers and creative-minded people of all stripes." And it's true. I sailed with seasoned geeks, kids and everyone in between. 

I haven't seen so many people having fun dressed as Jedi, Daleks and Cthulhu since San Diego Comic-Con. But you have many more chances to snap a photo when Darth Vader is casually lurking by the taco bar or a mermaid is lounging by the pool than you do when they're rushing around a convention hall. 

The guests on JoCo Cruise are geeky actors, authors, musicians, comedians, producers and makers.

JoCo Cruise

Not only are the passengers geeks, so are the guest performers. I cruised with actor Wil Wheaton; musicians like Aimee Mann, Paul and Storm and MC Frontalot; comedian John Hodgman; comic book writers Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction; authors John Scalzi and Pat Rothfuss; and Boing Boing founder Mark Frauenfelder, to name a few.

Here I am wearing my fuzzy cat ears before going on stage to play Action Cats.

Bonnie Burton/CNET

We were all more than happy to share our geeky passions at presentations and workshops on everything from game design, comic book writing, magic and puppet making to lock-picking techniques, Victorian fashion and acupuncture.

What's more, we often ended up in each other's shows as surprise guests doing improvised performances. I especially loved performing Action Cats (a card game where you have to make up outrageous stories about fictional cats' lives) on stage with TV producer Amy Berg, podcaster/comedian Travis McElroy and novelist Chelsea Cain while wearing cat ears.

Game on

If you ever want to learn how to play everything from Magic the Gathering to Illimat, this is the cruise for you. I've had my fair share of fun as a game master for Dungeons & Dragons, or just a willing participant playing Fiasco. But I was flabbergasted by the hundreds of games available to check out from the ship's vast library. There were card games, RPGs, storytelling games, traditional board games and, of course, chess.

There was even a "Cardboard Concierge" on call to help you choose the perfect game to suit your mood. Want an easy but fun storytelling card game? Try Action Cats. Want something that indulges your supernatural side? Try One Night Ultimate Werewolf. With every game, there was someone there to not only show you how to play, but connect you with other Sea Monkeys who wanted in.

Some of the hundreds of board games, RPGs and card games available to check out and play.

Bonnie Burton/CNET

The only thing I couldn't find in the large, looming game library was a Ouija board. Considering the venue, that might have been for the best. Could you imagine a cruise ship full of demons harassing the passengers? Though, chances are on a JoCo Cruise there'd be a few exorcists or ghost hunters aboard to save the day.

No internet, no real-world angst

The idea of a week without access to the internet might give some people the shakes, but for many of us on the ship it was a much-needed vacation from the daily rants of strangers on social media. 

While passengers could cough up to access the ship's pricey internet package (at $1 a minute!), most of us were more than happy to not have access to the outside world. We were too busy debating the best Time Lord in "Doctor Who" to bother with tragic real-world news, prickly politics and heated religious debates.

We weren't without on-board communication, though. The Sea Monkeys figured out how to create their own internal social media platform, playfully given a pirate pun name, Twitarr. The easy-to-use app was a fun way for everyone to share photos and tips.

Some discussions included food advice for vegans, reminders of cool things to do late at night on the ship, and photos of everyone's favorite towel animals made by the ship's crew and left on our beds every night. Twitarr was virtually whine-free, and a nice break from the vitriol on real-life Twitter.

One of the many final products of my "It's a Craft! Make an Admiral Sackbar puppet" workshop. 

Bonnie Burton/CNET

Admiral Sackbar at sea

I was invited on the cruise to show my fellow Sea Monkeys how to make puppets like the Admiral Sackbar bag puppet from my "Star Wars Craft Book." For over an hour, I chatted with creative passengers in the DIY craft room as they diligently re-created the bulbous-headed Mon Calamari character using paper bags, felt, fabric, googly eyes and glue.

The variety of Admiral Sackbar puppets proved Sea Monkeys are a creative bunch. Each puppet had a personality of its own, often reflecting the passions of its maker. There were Admiral Sackbar puppets wearing fancy suits, fez hats, Olympic medals and "Black Panther" garb.

I wasn't the only one leading a puppet-making workshop. All week, I spotted Sea Monkeys proudly playing with their handmade fuzzy monster puppets, Jim Henson-style Muppets and tiny finger puppets that looked like superheroes like Batman and Wonder Woman.

Introvert hideaway

All that frenzied fun could be a bit much for the introverts on board, but fortunately, the "Quiet Zone" on the top deck provided a good hideaway. 

There, Sea Monkeys could sit in comfy chairs while reading, drinking caramel lattes, staring out to sea and tackling one of the many jigsaw puzzles started and abandoned by other Sea Monkeys. I often found myself up in the Crow's Nest bar drinking many an Irish coffee while writing ocean-inspired short stories in my journal.

This is the view from the top deck "Quiet Zone" on the ship. 

Photo by Bonnie Burton/CNET

Other introvert areas could be found all over the ship. I often spotted a solitary Sea Monkey reading a book in a sofa near an elevator or in a big chair in an empty bar. My favorite spot was an outside chair on the top deck where I could spot whales in the ocean, or a very health-conscious John Hodgman on his morning jog.

Learn from my mistakes

Even Hodgman's healthy habits probably couldn't have prevented me from getting a zombie cold virus, however. Once you're stranded on a ship full of people, you soon realize how quickly germs can spread. And once they have, it's too late to save yourself. 

The JoCo, like most cruises, has multiple hand sanitizer stations, and I should have used them every time I passed one. Trust me. It might seem like overkill, but you'll be shaking hands, hugging friends, touching door knobs and hovering over buffets. 

Not only did I fail to use the hand sanitizers enough, I also forgot my cold meds, thinking I would just buy some on the ship. Yes, the gift shop was full of the usual over-the-counter cold and flu remedies, but at a high price. So instead of stocking up on chintzy souvenirs, I spent all my extra money on nighttime cough syrup.

No, this isn't a fever dream, but art that hung in the bathroom of my cabin.

Bonnie Burton/CNET

Still, it was worth every sniffle. I made friends with such a diverse group of geeks I'm convinced we should all take the JoCo Cruise to a remote island and start a new kind of civilization full of artists, gamers and makers. 

Next year's JoCo Cruise is scheduled to travel to the Caribbean from March 9-16, with the average per-person price around $2,200 (around £1,600, AU$2,825). Guests include the band They Might Be Giants, so if you want to sing along about Istanbul and birdhouses in your soul on the high seas, do yourself a favor and sign up. 

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