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Early Saturday morning, when the MS Veendam docked in Tampa, the MacMania V cruise officially came to an end—as did one of the more interesting work weeks of my career. As I look back on the past seven days, I find many fond memories, from the scuba diving to the incredible assortment of dinner entrees to the sights in each port of call. But beyond that, by far, the best memories come from the interaction with fellow Mac users. Whether it was in sessions, at meal time, or just during an impromptu conversation elsewhere on the ship, there were stories to be told, backgrounds to be learned, and knowledge to be shared—and not just from the speakers to the attendees. Mac users are a diverse group, and the attendees at MacMania V covered a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and Mac experience levels. The chance to discuss Macs, Macworld , and technology in general with this small group for a full week was truly special, and I think all of us are leaving with a better perspective on our fellow Mac users than we had going in.

My interaction with Mac users is typically entirely virtual—from exchanges in the various online forums to e-mail to the occasional iChat, all I usually “see” of other Mac users is their text on my screen. But for the last seven days, the speakers and attendees all had the chance to put faces to names, to learn just why so many people love their Macs, and to just generally have a blast working in a most unexpected environment. Sure, there are some challenges to interacting aboard a cruise ship—three of my four sessions were interrupted by several-minute-long announcements from “Money Man Mark” about the upcoming bingo sessions—but those challenges are offset by the encapsulated nature of the experience. Although cruise ships are large, most of their area is reserved for staterooms and the ship’s operations. That leaves a handful of public gathering places, in which you were almost guaranteed of meeting another MacMania attendee, regardless of the hour of day or night. And every evening, all 60 of us were seated together (at a number of tables) for dinner, leading to even more conversation.

The shore excursions, too, were often a chance to interact with MacMania attendees. I think nearly every speaker I spoke with had at least one or more attendees on their shore excursions. That was true even in my case, as one of the other divers with my wife and I on both scuba diving days was a MacMania attendee (and there were only four people on the boat on the second dive day). No other conference I have attended has offered this much interaction between speakers and attendees outside of the conference proper.

I also found the sessions themselves to be more fun than those I’ve given at past Macworld Expos. For the last couple of years, my Expo presentations have been to crowds that numbered in the 300 to 400 range. With a crowd of that size, there’s basically no personal interaction—you can’t make eye contact with everyone, and you can’t take questions during the slides, as things would quickly get out of hand. After the presentation, there’s one of me and maybe 30 to 40 people who come up to ask a couple questions or just say hello. In that environment, I just don’t have much time to talk to everyone, thank them for attending, or help them out with a detailed reply to their questions.

But during a MacMania cruise, there are many fewer people in the classroom. My first sessions on Monday (one solo and one with Dan Frakes) probably averaged 25 to 30 people, allowing us to actually take questions and interact with the attendees. The Friday sessions were an even better example of what’s possible with smaller classes. My Intro to iWork group was about 20, and I was able to ask everyone about their relative interest in Keynote versus Pages (the two iWork applications) before I began. When most people expressed an interest in Pages, I was able to modify my talk to spend more of the time available talking about that word processing and page-layout application. By comparison, trying to take an audience survey with 400 people in the crowd would be a basically impossible task. With a smaller class, it was also possible to take and answer questions as they came up, which makes things more relevant for attendees than the standard “please save your questions for the end” announcement I use with larger crowds.

My final session, an intro the world of open source apps on OS X, was by far my smallest—a grand total of five people attended. Granted, the topic was amongst the “geekier” of the week, but this might also have been my favorite session of the trip. It was much more like a small group project than a presentation, and I had lots of time to handle every question that came up, as well as to make sure that everyone understood each step of the process (as I was actually installing and using a number of programs during the talk).

Going into this week, I really didn’t have any idea what to expect. I was also somewhat skeptical that a cruise ship would make a good learning environment. Looking back now that it’s over, I can see the skepticism was misplaced. If anything, a cruise ship is a nearly-ideal learning environment. The combination of small class sizes and lots of time (both in and out of sessions) for interaction between students and attendees is tough to beat. Top it all off with the fact that you’re on a cruise ship, visiting some interesting destinations with lots of shipboard activities, and you’ve got a winning combination. (The fact that you’re on a cruise ship also means you can bring along your non-Mac-fanatic spouse or significant other for the week—while you’re involved with classes on the two sea days, he/she can take part in the shipboard activities, relax by the pool, visit the gym, etc.)

In case it’s not obvious, I had a terrific time on my first MacMania cruise. I’m looking forward to doing this again in the spring, when I’ll be participating in the MacMania VI Alaskan cruise (and talking about the hopefully released by then OS X 10.5, amongst other topics). I’m sure I’ll meet another diverse, interesting group of Mac users, have some fun shore excursions (no diving, of course!), and generate another set of wonderful memories.

Even if you think you’re “not the cruising kind,” you might be pleasantly surprised by what you get out of a week with a bunch of fellow Mac maniacs. I know I was, and I can’t wait to do it again.

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