Charlotte Mecklenburg let her mind drift ahead many years to the fall of her prospective offspring's freshman year in college. She imagined her child grousing about a cramped living space or a messy roommate, and she scoffed.
"They will never be able to complain," said Mecklenburg, who just began her freshman year at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "Because I'll be able to tell them, 'Look, I lived in a boat! '"
Like 239 of her St. Mary's classmates, the Gaithersburg resident was trying to keep in good humor Monday about the decidedly unusual turn the college's year has taken.
After being forced from their dorms by mold and spending a week in local hotels, Mecklenburg and company were supposed to move Monday onto the 286-foot Sea Voyager, docked beside the campus on the St. Mary's River. They began arriving with their belongings only to learn that because of safety issues related to the depth of the river, they wouldn't be able to board the floating residence hall for at least another 24 hours.
The last-minute twist seemed only fitting for a group of freshmen who began their college careers by riding out Hurricane Irene and saw their lives thrown into utter chaos by the mold that developed in two dorms because of extreme dampness and faulty air conditioning systems.
"They are certainly learning a heck of a lot about dealing with adversity," said Mecklenburg's mother, Kim Mitchel, who had driven to campus to help her daughter move from a hotel to the boat. "Life is not always perfect, but they're doing really well with it."
Some classmates have talked about leaving, but Mecklenburg takes pride in sticking it out with the college she chose.
"This year's class is going to be closer than any other," she predicted. "We're definitely going to have all-time bragging rights."
The Sea Voyager loomed in the background, a blue-and-white colossus docked in the quiet St. Mary's River, dwarfing a replica of one of the ships that brought colonists to St. Mary's City in the 17th century.
Since the ship pulled in Sunday morning, students and neighbors have beaten a steady path to the shore to snap pictures of a curiosity that has drawn national attention. Jimmy Fallon even told a joke about the floating dorm on his late-night show last week.
Monday was supposed to be the big day when students would finally see their quarters after a frustrating week of 45-minute shuttle rides to and from hotel rooms as far as Solomon's Island. The college called a news conference to show off the new dorm, which officials described as a creative way to bring the campus back together. Some students who lived in mold-free halls were even trying to swap their way into spots on the Sea Voyager.
President Joseph Urgo seemed almost sheepish when he found out near the end of the news conference that the U.S. Coast Guard wouldn't be letting anyone on the ship just yet. A Coast Guard spokesman, Petty Officer 1st Class Nathan Henise, said the ship was listing to one side but he added that it was a minor problem that should be addressed Tuesday.
Urgo said the ship might have to be docked farther from shore and connected to the mainland by a barge. He added that the college already had a barge on hand.
Asked if he was worried that the boat might never be cleared for habitation, Urgo said, "Nothing is beyond possibility, but I've been assured by the Coast Guard that this is a routine problem with docking, nothing to get crazy about."
Students could only laugh or roll their eyes as they debated what to do with luggage they had just removed from their hotel rooms. The college made a nearby building available for temporary storage, so most figured they'd ditch their stuff and return to the hotels with light overnight bags.
Caitlin Whiteis of Olney was eager to move into her room, one of only six on the Sea Voyager with a balcony. In addition to the view, the complimentary laundry service sounded just about right to her.
"We've had to deal with a lot of quick changes," she said, contemplating another night in a La Quinta Inn 25 minutes away. "I think the ship will be awesome … if we ever get onto it."
"You guys are learning to be flexible, but there's only so much they can ask of you," said her roommate's mother, Dorothy Horvat, who had driven from Rockville to help with the move.
"Yeah, and I have a biology lab due at 4 p.m.," Whiteis said.
Despite hints of frustration, students and parents said the college has done its best to keep everyone safe and healthy and to keep the community together. The clean-up and relocation efforts are expected to cost $2.5 million, and with mold removal expected to take another three to six weeks, students will probably live on the ship for the remainder of this semester.
"I think they're doing their best to be accommodating," said Mitchel. "Who could foresee all of this?"
Mecklenburg thought back over her first semester — taking cold showers and surviving on peanut butter and jelly during the hurricane, fleeing the mold, waiting for the boat.
"If you really want to be here," she said, "you're going to stay here and deal with all of it."