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Mold-plagued St. Mary’s College students to live on cruise ship

The renamed Sea Voyager cruise ship. (COURTESY OF ST. MARY'S COLLEGE OF MARYLAND)

For 250 students displaced from their residence halls by an outbreak of mold, leaders of St. Mary’s College of Maryland have found an opulent solution: Put them on a cruise ship.

The Sea Voyager, a 286-foot-long vessel out of Wilmington, Del., will dock at historic St. Mary’s City on Friday to serve temporary duty as a floating dormitory for the public liberal arts school on a riverfront campus 70 miles from Washington.

This voyage to nowhere will deliver the students from living conditions that can only be described as an unmitigated bummer. They were evacuated last week from two dorm buildings after a doctor declared them uninhabitable because of ubiquitous mold. Since then, the students have traveled to the remote campus from three hotels, one of them nearly 20 miles away.

The novel housing arrangement is becoming a public relations bonanza for St. Mary’s, a school that defines itself as a center of scholarship and sailing. Students use library cards to check out boats. The school has produced three Olympic sailors, and homecoming weekend features a Great Bamboo Boat Race.

“I came to St. Mary’s to be living on the water, and now I’ll be literally living on the water,” said Molly Malarkey, 18, a freshman from Ellicott City, who was biding her time at a Holiday Inn while awaiting the Sea Voyager.

As word spread of the housing crunch, it didn’t take long for someone at the water-intensive school to propose putting the students on a boat. An alumnus tipped off the school’s president, Joseph Urgo, that the Sea Voyager was for sale and in transit, bound for Virginia. Urgo made a few phone calls, and the ship changed course toward the St. Mary’s River.

“Over the years, we have often joked, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have an off-shore residence hall?’ ” Urgo said. “Their rooms will be a little smaller, but they’ll have full use of all the amenities on the ship: the ballroom, the state room, the shuffleboard.”

When the president announced in a campuswide e-mail that students would be moved to the cruise ship, which the school will be renting, some dismissed it as a hoax.

But the announcement raised spirits among those displaced, since they have not had much to cheer since the fall term started.

Soon after classes began, students in the Caroline and Prince George residence halls began complaining of sniffles and congestion. Their symptoms grew worse.

“I’ve been sick for the past several weeks,” said Josh Stine, 18, a sophomore from Severna Park who lived in the Prince George Hall basement; he is now at a Sleep Inn. “My roommate was diagnosed with bronchitis.”

Engineers determined that the buildings’ ventilation systems were leaking water, seeding mold throughout the structures.

But where to put the students? The school’s location is a blessing and a curse. It is miles from the nearest commercial district — ideal for contemplative study, tricky for relocating hundreds of students.

School officials set up a round-the-clock shuttle service from the hotels to campus, but some students drove their own cars, sometimes late at night.

“I was really worried about them,” Urgo said.

A cruise ship might seem an extravagant solution, particularly for a tax-funded institution. But Urgo said that renting the vessel will cost the school a bit less than the $20,000 a day being spent on hotel bills. The relocation ordeal, not including mold clean-up, will cost as much as $1.5 million, which Urgo termed “a big hit” to the school’s emergency reserves. Then again, he said, “this is what it’s for.”

Urgo said he’ll spend Friday night on the ship, with the students. There were still decisions to be made, such as how to fairly assign the cabins, which range in size and shape.

And what to do with students who suffer from seasickness.

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