Walking up to the Norwegian Cruise Line's Epic for HOLY SHIP! 9.0 felt like going home for the largest reunion imaginable seeing all of the familiar faces, the myriad of Shipfam! shirts, the champagne bottles already being popped, and the iconic READY TO SHIP stickers that someone always deems fit to re-appropriate from UPS to slap on everyone in line.
While waiting in line, I was transported back three years ago to my own first sailing aboard the notoriously hard to attend festival put on by HARD Events, Cloud 9 Adventures, and The Bowery. I, like so many of the "virgins" this year, had absolutely no idea of what was to come, the experiences I would have, or how simply boarding the ship would affect my life. To an outsider, the idea that a music festival could have a lasting effect on your life seems impossible to grasp, while having been through it, explaining the wonder of shipping is just as difficult.
While there are a multitude of outstanding festivals in the world, HOLY SHIP! is in a league of its own, both because of the festival itself and the people that attend. With most festivals there's a clear divide that separates the artists from the fans, but on HOLY SHIP! the divide completely dissipates. Where most festivals have tens of thousands of attendees with gargantuan sized stages, the ship necessities intimate venues with an attendance a fraction of other festivals. While everyone goes home each night of a land festival, the artists and the fans are onboard for the entirety of the ship. You walk the same hallways, take the same elevators, eat in the same restaurants, and dance on the same dancefloors. It's not unusual to strike up a conversation with your favorite artist over dinner or see a wild Will Clarke, the undisputed chief roamer of 9.0, appear next to you at a set. Even though all of the artists are booked in multiple slots throughout the ship, something truly special by itself, artists consistently hop on the decks of other sets for short collabs with other artists creating a musical environment unique to HOLY SHIP!
Just as HOLY SHIP! itself is unique, so are the people that attend and the community they've built. According to MamaB, the matriarch of the community of shippers known as Shipfam!, after the original voyage an online community sprung up for all of the original shippers to keep in touch. In the years since, Shipfam! has grown to encompass thousands of people spanning the entire globe interconnected with Facebook groups for each region, festival, and any number of interests, with the common goal of moving Shipfam! beyond the actual ship. When asked about Shipfam! Gary Richards said, "I just thought that cool music on this boat would be great, but Shipfam! has been the best thing. I couldn't even dream that up. It's better than the music, better than the boat, better than anything that that happened. The best happy accident ever."
This year, for the first time, both sailings were back to back with HOLY SHIP! 8.0 being from January 6th-10th and HOLY SHIP! 9.0 setting sail from January 10th-14th. While many shippers would go back2back in years past, this year that meant being on HOLY SHIP! for nine straight days. Surviving that is a feat all its own.
Once aboard, there was the all too familiar scramble for people to familiarize themselves with the ship, drop their stuff off in their cabin, get changed, and get the Shipfam! staple bottle of champagne before the insanity started promptly at 6pm with Fat Boy Slim's Sail Away set. Even though the first night was packed full of great sets with Claude VonStroke kicking off the Spice H2O amphitheater-style stage at the back of the boat and the Night Bass crew taking over the Theater with label head AC Slater at the helm, the first night of Ship felt more like a family reunion than anything else. All over the ship friends from around the world were reuniting through their shared love of music.
With its positioning on the top deck allowing for beautiful sunsets and dancing underneath the stars, Spice H2O was fast on its way to becoming the most loved stage on the ship, which Justin Martin and Hot Since 82 helped cement by putting out the best sets of the first night there. Whether it was the atmosphere or the artists, Spice H2O consistently saw some of the best sets of the ship. It was probably both.
While HOLY SHIP! was run as a tight ship, every festival has it issues. Unfortunately, Justin Jay was unable to make the ship and inclement weather halted plans for the private island party on the second day, both of which caused artist schedules to be shuffled around.
The second night's Studio 54 theme after the famous New York club brought out the glamorous disco-era outfits that defined the 70s, complete with fluffy hair and flashy attire. Rather than the party ending at 5am as per usual, Thursday morning was Destructo's 5:30-8:30am Sunrise Sermon on the top deck, easily the most anticipated event for artists and shippers alike as they always devolve into one remarkable party. Destructo started it off with Maceo Plex's "Conjure Dreams" and stayed with the DRUMCODE dark techno vibe until the sun started to come up and then transitioned into more melodic house tracks. Gary Richards, with his Sunrise Sermons, never disappoints and this one was no different, with Griz playing his tenor sax along to "Ride Like the Wind" and Gary Richards going back to back with Doc Martin on some true house classics. On why this Sunrise Sermon was Soul Clap's favorite experience this ship, Eli stated that Doc Martin "was the guy that we used to see playing all the house classics when they were actually brand new 20 years ago!" Like the previous two years he's been on the ship, Eli got some time up on the decks during the Sermon, saying that "this year I had the opportunity to play Dr. Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream speech and say a few words about coming together in this difficult political time. That meant a lot to me to have that platform." To top of the morning, at the end of the Sermon, a wedding was performed on stage.
One of the best parts of HOLY SHIP! is the fact that during the day, some artists hold activities, which can range from yoga to beer pong to a Smash Brothers tournament to anything really. After some much-deserved sleep after the Sermon and with a Bloody Mary in hand, I headed to the Night Bass Bingo hosted by AC Slater and the entire Night Bass crew to hang out before our interview. While the normal bingo rules generally applied, the prizes ranged from tequila shots to Night Bass gear to money. By the end, everyone was feeling pretty toasted and AC Slater was handing out the rest of the Patron to anyone in sight. Due to a scheduling change, most of the Night Bass crew were double booked to be on the Pool Deck for a massive B2B the same time as the bingo, so AC Slater, Gorgon City, Chris Lorenzo, Jack Beats, Redlight, and I rushed into the nearest elevator to make it up to the Pool Deck stage, much to the surprise of the shippers already in the elevator who quickly started talking music. The ability to talk for even a short time with the Night Bass crew from a chance elevator encounter is one of the things that make HOLY SHIP! unique. The ship puts everyone on the same level, something that never happens at a normal festival.
Talking on the way over and after his set about why he keeps returning to play HOLY SHIP! every year, AC Slater said, "Gary has been a champion of a similar sound to the Night Bass, AC Slater sound. Gary and I are on a similar wavelength—house influence with bass, rap vocals. Just party music. I feel really in place here right now. I'm just happy to be a part of it." On what the Night Bass sound actually is, he said that "the definition of Night Bass is just my taste in music…so UK music with elements of old rave music, Bay Area stuff, and hip-hop." Basically, it's just "Cool people doing cool shit. Not cookie cutter shit."
That evening, before heading to the DIRTYBIRD Party, I saw Soul Clap play a sunset set at the Spice H2O stage, by far my favorite set of the entire ship. They were wholeheartedly within their element, saying "we've been honing that beautiful Balearic outdoor sunset vibe for years" as it's "actually one of our favorite moods to play." I didn't see anyone dance as hard as they did to that intricate mixture of house fused with soul, reggae, and Latin influences. At the end of the night, I found my way to Felix Da Housecat for some classic, purist late-night house music, the kind only Felix can provide. While certainly a smaller crowd than what I'm sure Jauz and Claude VonStroke were pulling, it fit the diva after hours vibe Felix was putting out.
The next morning was a late start for most of the boat, understandably so as HOLY SHIP! extended itself for an extra day this year. The extra day felt like a blessing, defying the fact that it was Friday the 13th, as it started out with beautiful house sets from Doc Martin, Marques Wyatt, Arthur Baker, and Doorly to ease you from afternoon into the evening. Hannah Wants threw down her best set of the ship, taking it deeper than normal. It was difficult to tear myself away to go to dinner at one of the nicer restaurants Taste, where you're still just as likely to see people dressed up as you are to see shippers running around playing an impromptu life-sized game of PacMan (Side note: whomever did this, you're amazing).
HOLY SHIP! ended on a high note for the techno lovers with Hot Since 82 playing a closing set, ending with his track "Veins." Though the official part of HOLY SHIP! was over that didn't mean the music was actually done as Subset played an afterhours renegade set on the top deck like the ones he used to play before he actually got booked on HOLY SHIP! last year.
As we disembarked from yet another successful ship and said goodbye to all of my friends whom I couldn't imagine would play such a large part of my life three years ago, I was reminded, yet again, that Holy Ship! is a truly unique experience, packed full of surprises. It's the only festival where you can be dancing on a private island in the morning, playing games with your favorite DJ in the afternoon, and watching the Sunrise Sermon with your best friends the next morning. There's simply nothing like Holy Ship!