The world has changed a lot since Holy Ship! first set sail in 2012. The White House saw Obama leave and Trump enter. Music festivals exploded, became a dime a dozen and then slowly fell off, leaving only the strongest and most individual brands to survive. The “EDM” explosion came and went. Even Holy Ship! moved from the MSC Divina to the Norwegian Epic, changing ports from south to central Florida, expanding from one annual sailing to two, and most recently, changing hands from HARD events founder Gary Richards to HARD’s new Insomniac captains.
The one constant has been Shipfam, the community of veteran shippers who’ve cultivated an insular culture of acceptance, self-referential humor and surreal debauchery. When Holy Ship! docks, Shipfam keeps the fever dream alive on Facebook forums and communal gatherings.
In 2019, Holy Ship! has become well-trodden territory for hundreds of so-called Shipfam and veteran DJs who look forward to playing year after year. Private island parties are anticipated highlights, back-to-backs are expected, and characteristic oddities are planned events, but where this year’s Holy Ship! 12.0 and 13.0 may not have been the most spontaneous, they overwhelmed with an ever-present spirit of togetherness, spiritual freedom and bad-ass times with good people.
Now that Holy Ship! is an Insomniac experience, the company having joined long-time event production partners Bowery Presents and Cloud 9 in 2018, it’s production levels are boss. The boat deck hosts not one but two main stage arenas, one which typically hosted more brutal bass acts including Zeds Dead, Rezz and NGHTMRE, while the other, situated upwind on the ship’s bow, hosted funkier house DJs from Justin Martin to Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs and Chris Lake. Both structures featured larger-scale LED screens bearing vibrant visuals, sometimes thrashing colored lights in ambient moods, other times atmospheric scenes of figures dancing in tropical jungles or underwater cities.
Beneath deck, various venues, theaters and event spaces were transformed into micro-communities of musical madness. Wandering the labyrinthian halls of the ship’s hull became a living choose-your-own-adventure novel of sights and sounds. On 12.0, fans shook lots of booty at the legendary rap party, annually hosted by A-Trak, giving their untz-weary ears a break of urban bass. Some fans took in the hardcore rhythms of the Jungle Massive room, where the Craze and Justin Martin exchanged drum’n’bass licks like obsessed kids trading Pokemon cards. Still others partook of delightful disco from TEED’s Fundido showcase, pansexual house grooves from A Club Called Rhonda, got weird and wild with Dirtybird vs Desert Hearts, broke their necks to Snails’ Slugz takeover, or dove deep into menacing techno from Nicole Moudaber‘s Mood.
All the while DJs flitted in and out of rooms to perform planned sets or sudden back-to-backs. Acts on the bill often refer to Holy Ship! as a kind of summer camp where they meet with old friends and show off new tricks. The same can be said for those on the other side of the decks.
“I feel like it’s a beautiful tradition,” says Rawb Lane, a real OG shipper who’s been on just about every voyage. “(It’s) something to return to every year for the people and luxury.”
Lane spends his land life as a bartender and general “rablerouser” at New York City’s freak flag flyer event House of YES. He and his signature mustache have become somewhat Ship famous. Fast with a pun with a smile that beams for miles, he’s often found pulling surreal stunts, like playing baseball with a giant spoon in the middle of the Bahamian ocean. This year saw Lane and his friends, who call themselves the Instigators, brought on as official mischief makers employed by Insomniac. If you were caught by some cooky coppers and handed a citation for having “too much chest hair,” you met them.
“Any good summer camp has the program in place where former campers grow and train into being Camp Counselors for younger generations,” he says. “Not only to continue their time at the camp they love so much, but to also embark wisdom and appreciation for the experience to Younger generations. I feel like it helps the new Virgins Shippers realize that Holy Ship! is more than just a party, but a community and you too could be part of it forever. It is amazing to see the Instigator team be recognized in a way that shows that we share the enthusiasm of a Virgin Shipper with party chops of a OG shipper.”
Anyone who’s been to an Insomniac festival like Electric Forest, Beyond Wonderland or one of the many Electric Daisy Carnivals knows these paid performers are part of their game. It’s about creating an over-the-top experience one won’t soon forget, drawing a true schism between your normal life and your party persona.
This sense of asburd escapism is at the heart of all of Holy Ship!’s best moments. When else will 20 women in bathing suits get on stage and shake ass with Big Freedia on the golden sands of a private island? Where else can A-Trak drop tunes by Michael McDonald or Fleetwood Mac between samples of Travis Scott screaming “It’s lit!” What other environment could inspire GRiZ to send the University of Miami marching band up and down a boat deck as the sun rises over open ocean? It’s just something you have to see, and once you see it, you don’t ever want it to end.
Take it from The Black Madonna. She’s a beacon of the hip crowd underground, and her only takeaway after a sophomore sailing of back-to-back Ships was only that “being jaded is lame.”
“I used to hate EDM and I still really don’t care for the music,” she tweeted, “but … I have just spent a week on Holy Ship! and honestly it was great. There was every kind of music. From hardstyle to Roman Flugel. And the crowds weren’t always different. I played ALLLLLLL (sic) the things I always play. 5 sets. The dancers on the boat were young. Yes they were blinking. I was given bracelets and candy and more hugs than I can count. Walking along the boat, every five feet it seemed someone would ask me if they could hug me. There were drag queens and voguers and folks coming over from more underground dance worlds and a lot of people were wondering if they’d be accepted and the consensus was that this was one of the most earnest, loving communities we’d been invited to.”
That love is everything on Holy Ship! It’s the love of the music that made Skream dance ’til he was caught in his own headphone wires, the love of the craft that inspired Craze and Four Color Zach’s 2cents tomix Akon‘s “I Wanna Fuck You” and TLC‘s “No Scrubs” into an anti-Donald Trump medley, and the love from the strangers all around you that keep fans coming back for more. Slow ticket sales on 13.0 may inspire Holy Ship! to consolidate on one ship instead of for two in 2020. Still, it certainly won’t disappear any time soon.