I was born a little too late to have ever experienced the true raves that existed decades ago: the secret warehouse parties where you’d find the address by calling a random phone number, where you danced the night away, didn’t face a DJ, and just moved your body to the beat of the music along with hundreds of other people. The era that existed pre-Instagram, Facebook, social media, texting, seizure-inducing pyrotechnic spastic laser shows, and the over-diagnosis of ADHD.
But I’ve experienced HARD’s Holy Ship!, and it’s hard for me to imagine that anything better exists today. You dance, everyone around you dances, and you’re connected in the moment, through the music and the experience of being in the middle of the ocean, wind whipping through your hair and infinite ocean surrounding you. You feel a sense of acceptance and openness. But on top of that, there’s a community and belonging because of the close quarters; lack of phone service/Internet; and smaller population. Being confined to a vessel at sea forces you to interact with those around you. And running into familiar faces is inevitable when you’re sharing the same spaces for four days.
Just think about it: take a music festival and then throw in the conveniences of living aboard a cruise ship. You don’t need to worry about lengthy security checks in line or dark port-a-potties with no toilet paper. You can grab a slice of pizza or an entire pineapple 24 hours a day when you get hungry (for free!) or a sweater from your room if you’re cold. Switching venues can be as easy as walking up one flight of stairs. VIP sections are limited to non-existent, and you’ll probably find your favorite DJs hungover in the cafeteria line behind you, inviting you to a scotch and cigar hour, playing blackjack, hitting on you in the hot tub, etc. Almost all of the DJs play more than one set, easing your FOMO because you can catch them later if two of your favorites are playing at the same time.
The generosity and friendliness on board can be almost overwhelming. On the first night, some random guy asked my friend if he liked acid, and when he responded, “Yeah!” his mouth stayed open long enough for the guy to just stick a tab under his mouth. Needless to say, he had a pretty memorable night after that. When you put 3,000 people on a cruise ship, throw in some DJs and stop by two private islands, some crazy things are bound to happen. It’s a non-stop House party on the sea. The best part is that it feels like it’s everyone’s own house, but with no worrying about any cleaning up or noise complaints.
The HARDfather and creator of Holy Ship, Gary Richards (aka Destructo), has been in the business of throwing unforgettable parties and booking talented DJs for decades now, starting out from his days in LA where he supported himself as a pizza boy. He’s now perfected his craft with Holy Ship. With themed-out nights, private islands, DJ lessons from A-Trak, poker tournaments, and everything else that’s offered on board, it’s hard to beat. On top of all of these things, I have the biggest respect for the invention of Ship Fam. Richards may not have coined the term himself, but he certainly shaped the vibe that makes every passenger on board feel like we’re part of one big family — a feeling that extends well after we’ve all docked. It’s a feeling that even extends to the DJs, as many of us witnessed Laidback Luke propose to his girlfriend Gina Turner on the original voyage 3 years ago, and then watched them this year as they did an adorable and amazing B2B set, with a now very visibly pregnant Gina.
Truthfully, every set on board turns into a B2B set; all of the DJs are having fun and get to interact with each other in a way that rarely happens any place else. In the smallest venue, I stopped by for 15 minutes for what I thought was going to be a Claude Vonstroke set, but what really turned into a Claude Vonstroke, Diplo, Disclosure, and Justin Martin set, all within a matter of 15 minutes. At the private island, Chromeo’s Dave 1 jumped in to be the hype man for his brother’s (A-Trak) set on the beach. It felt rare to witness such an intimate family affair. Ship Fam is also just seeing some of the same familiar names on the line up each year, which turns it into a family reunion of sorts. A favorite of mine every year is the Fool’s Gold Rap party, which happens on the last night of the festival, where every single DJ somehow ends up on stage and everyone’s getting crazy to some hip hop while being wowed by A-Trak’s scratching abilities.
But really, nothing beats dancing in the ocean in perfect weather. Or not having to bring your boombox or headphones to the beach (on a private island!), because you can sunbathe listening to some of the world’s most talented DJs and producers perform just a few feet away from you is priceless. It’s truly unreal to be putting on sunblock while watching the Disclosure brothers spinning, and then remembering that they’re probably too young to even be on this cruise, and how awesome is that?
These three nights easily become a topic of conversation for the next 362 days. Within a week of your return all of your other friends start avoiding you and then block you on social media, because they don’t know what #Boatswag is and don’t want to watch another video of you dancing. Ever. But it’s okay, because who needs friends when you get that priceless feeling of running into people around the world who experienced that same weekend with you and then instantly feeling an unexplainable bond…Because you’re a part of Ship Fam.
I was one of the lucky few who got to experience the maiden voyage three years ago, and although nothing will ever live up to that amazing life-changing experience where I drank minty vodka; we snuck on board inside a Listerine bottle; placed second in a ship-wide poker tournament; went parasailing for the first time; swam with sting rays, wore a crocodile costume originally intended for a three-year-old; had my first experience with an edible that rendered me unable to speak but had me dancing in the exact same spot to beautiful French chain-smoking DJs for more than 3 hours; flailed in the ocean while music blasted from a larger-than-life pirate ship DJ booth; and then fell in love with a DJ after he approached me for a song request during his set in the disco… I still go back every year.
I come back physically drained, yet invigorated. I really can’t imagine starting my year off any better than with my Ship Fam.
Photography by Rony’s Photobooth