ST. MARY'S CITY, Md. -- Don't be fooled by the twin beds and stacks of books on Darwin. Molly Malarkey's dorm isn't like others at St. Mary's College of Maryland. The lounge downstairs has chandeliers and panoramic views of the St. Mary's River. Someone comes by to change the sheets and collect laundry. And, in a wardrobe, there are the orange lifejackets.
For the rest of the semester, the 18-year-old Malarkey and 239 other students are living aboard the Sea Voyager, a cruise ship about the length of a football field now docked at the school's southern Maryland campus. Earlier this semester, after heavy rains exacerbated a mold problem in two dorms and made some students sick, the school moved students out and put them up in hotels.
But the school, a public liberal arts college with some 2,000 students, is somewhat remote, and the hotels were far away. So, the school brought in the cruise ship.
LIFE ON A CRUISE SHIP
"I thought it was like a joke," said Malarkey, a sophomore psychology major and lacrosse player from Ellicott City, Md., who can now lie in her bed and watch the school's sailing team practice out of one of her cabin's three windows.
The way the school tells it, the ship just made sense. An alumnus first suggested the idea after learning the boat, part of a fleet generally rented out by tour operators, was nearby and available. School officials smiled but also took the suggestion seriously. After working out details like what amenities the ship would provide -- piano player (No.) meals (No.) and laundry service (Yes.) -- the students moved in the first week in November. The cost of the stationary cruise, $20,000 a day, is about what the school was paying for the hotels. And now all the students are closer to campus.
"It's added that unexpected and fanciful aspect to the semester," said the school's president, Joseph Urgo, who was given a captain's hat as a joke.
Still, it's been an adjustment. Instead of traditional floors, the students now live on levels with names like "Harbor Deck" and "Lantern Deck." Metal railings line the hallways for when the ship is under way and encounters choppy seas. Signs point the way port and aft (that's to the ship's left side and to its rear). And cabin doors are labeled with nautical names: Room 323 is "Cape Florida," for example, and Room 325 "Ponce de Leon Inlet."
Students say ship life is surreal. In addition to fresh linens twice a week, there's a television and DVD player in every room. Toilet paper in the cabin bathroom gets folded into a little point. And because there's no laundry room, dirty clothing left in a mesh bag will be laundered by the crew. Folding is not included.
"It's wild. It's much more frequent than I wash my linens," said Andy VanDeusen, 21, a biology major from Baltimore who is a resident adviser.
There are some downsides. The ship's location means a longer walk to classes. The cabins are small, about 150 square feet for a double room rather than about 178 square feet in the dorm. The one narrow desk in each cabin isn't wide enough to hold a laptop, so studying gets done on the bed or in one of two lounges -- one of them the ship's dining room. And then there are the windowless cabins.
"It feels like a jail cell without a window," said Maddie Hook, 18, a psychology major from Bethesda, Md., who is less than enthusiastic about her interior berth.
She's lucky, though. A handful of students got assigned to crew cabins below decks, where the carpet and wood paneling of upstairs is replaced by bunk beds and metal lockers. The only good thing: these cabins are being used as single rooms instead of doubles.
Still, the novelty of life on a boat makes up for some inconveniences. More than one student has bragged about the ship on Facebook, posting photos of sunrise from the top deck. Others acknowledged having the urge to re-enact scenes from the movie "Titanic." And two students described an impromptu sing-along one recent evening in the ship's pub, with a student playing one of two onboard baby grand pianos while other pajama-clad students sang.
The party won't last for long, however. The school plans to have the students' dorms renovated and mold free by the end of the semester. Until then, sophomore resident Benjamin Israel, 19, said the students can cope.
"We're all in the same boat. Pun intended," he said.