It’s either the 10-foot waves, the four shots of tequila, or the shifting tempos of “Heartbreak
in Motion” by Australian DJ Anna Lunoe—or maybe it’s all of the above—but I’m feeling a little
dizzy as the MSC Divina steams toward the Bahamas on an overcast evening in late February. Make that very dizzy.
Adding to the effect is the presence of a guy in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume bouncing up and down next to me. He’s holding a sign featuring a picture of Michelle Tanner, the "Full House" munchkin played by the Olsen twins. The Ninja Turtle has printed a word bubble by her mouth: "I want
to party," she’s saying, followed by something else she supposedly wants to do, of which Uncle Jesse definitely would not approve.
As Lunoe builds on the beat, the surging mass of revelers disgorges two young women onto the stage. They begin to undress. A moment later, one drops to her knees, places her head in her friend’s crotch, and goes to town.
I glance at the man on my left, who seems not to have noticed the half-naked women having sex with each other a few feet away. He’s dressed as a giant penis. His costume appears homemade, and the massive head has deflated so much it blocks his vision.
As for me, I’m a long way from home. My nine-to-five desk job is but a distant memory. So are my lease, my beloved girlfriend, and my csa membership. At a moment in my life when I’m supposed to be taking on the responsibilities of a mature adult, I have instead run headlong in the opposite direction: booking a ticket for a 60-hour party that takes me straight to the frenetically pounding heart of the EDM movement.
This is the fifth iteration of Holy Ship!, a sea-borne party that brings together the biggest acts in electronic dance music—the fastest growing genre in the United States—packs them into a cruise ship with 4,000 of their most ardent fans, and looses them upon the Gulf Stream. After setting sail from the Port of Miami, the ship is beset by a storm, making for a clumsy and somewhat nauseating first evening as the giant vessel pitches from side to side. Not that the weather is dampening anyone’s spirits. Here, anything is possible. You can drink all the booze you want and stumble back to your cabin without a care (just steer clear of the balconies). You can get stoned and sate your munchies with an endless buffet. And you never, ever have to stop listening to dance music.
In fact, it’s piped in through the ship’s PA system, so you don’t really have a choice. Energy starting to fade? There’s a solution for that, too, not that we’d advise it. "Molly lives here!" reads the none-too-subtle advertisement taped to more than one berth door.
Conceived in 2012 by hard Events founder Gary Richards (who deejays under the name Destructo), Holy Ship! has gone from a concert at sea to a full-on floating cultural phenomenon, described as “Burning Man on a boat.” Instead of the DIY structures, tribes, and psychedelics of its desert counterpart, Holy Ship! has a big-ass ocean liner, a hard-core group of devotees—known as “ShipFam”—and, despite an official ban on drugs, seemingly enough stimulants smuggled aboard by guests to keep the 1986 Mets playing through December.
“It’s become sort of like a religious cult,” Fatboy Slim, a.k.a. Norman Cook, tells me. He was on the first-ever Holy Ship! and is one of the headliners this time around. (The lineup also includes Skrillex, Baauer, DJ Snake, and Ty Dolla $ign.) “Everyone is devoted to the total hilarity and stupidity of it all.”
“Holy shiippp!” a girl named Kat, who has the room next to mine and is wearing only a bikini top and cutoff jeans, screams into the brisk night. She leans over the railing and takes in the dark sea. “We’re finally fucking here!”
Only hours before, Kat and I had been drinking in my cabin, watching the sun set over the Miami skyline while she took hit after hit from her vape pen, which was filled with hash oil. Hailing from Philadelphia, the 23-year-old works at her parents’ furniture-liquidation business. She told me she had been looking forward to the cruise all year. “This is where I live, man.”
At the moment, however, Kat is looking a little green, having started the evening with multiple shots of tequila. She shares a menthol cigarette with me as her friend Sam talks about his life back home as a DJ known as Alien Fuel. “But here, I’m not a DJ. I’m just a fan, y’know?”
I excuse myself, stepping into the corridor. A man dressed in full Middle Eastern formalwear, including a keffiyeh, all of which happens to be dyed neon green, is banging on a cabin door, having gotten locked out of his room. I ask him what inspired his costume, seeing as how most of the get-ups—like the dozen sharks, Power Rangers, and giant penguin I’ve seen in just the past half hour alone—have a much sillier vibe.
“I’m from Dubai, mate,” he tells me. “This is how I normally dress.”
I head for the La Luna lounge on the ship’s Apollo deck. The space boasts a grand piano and features an unobstructed view of a glass elevator. As I sit drinking whiskey, I watch an impromptu show as one elevator passenger after another flashes the crowd: a breast here, a dick there, an ass or two. One person has meticulously shaved all of her body hair, generating awe and then applause from the assembled. Meanwhile, in front of the bar, a girl in a bathing suit is writhing on her back, her curly dark hair fanned out behind her, considering whether to accept her friends’ suggestion that she “butt-chug” a shot of tequila (which, for the uninitiated, is exactly what it sounds like). I duck out before the matter is resolved.
Outside of the Black & White club, one of the four venues on the ship, a man dressed as a banana is having a hard time standing up.
“I got this,” he says to no one in particular, leaning against a pillar.
The main event of the evening is the Skrillex show, which takes place in a massive theater more typically devoted to Broadway-style spectaculars.
At 4 AM, a sound resembling that of a jackhammer mating with a disco ball blasts from the speakers: This is Skrillex. The theater is packed. Everyone from all the other stages has converged on this single space. Now 27, he still has the look of an angry adolescent—and a petulant attitude to match, constantly berating us for not making enough noise. Before long, though, he gives us what everyone has come for—his patented “drop,” where he cuts off the bass and then turns the music up really loud. The concussive force of the drop removes any resistance the listener might have to dancing. In fact, the body instinctively begins to move, perhaps as a defense against the audio barrage it’s sustaining. Skrillex jumps up and down on the stage, unsatisfied with the effect.
“Make some motherfuckin’ noise!” Skrillex screams, and everyone does—even the banana, who has made a miraculous recovery. He’s not hard to spot, gyrating on the dance floor, thrusting his hips at nothing in particular. After one final plea that we make some noise, Skrillex brings the set to a close, and everyone heads to breakfast.
Not me, though. Instead, I attempt to get some fleeting sleep as the boat makes its way across
a rocky sea, the constant thump of bass worming its way into my uneasy dreams.
A few hours later, I myself make the journey to the buffet. Today’s theme is Mardi Gras, and by the time I’ve gotten my French toast and eggs, I am covered in beads. Most everyone seems to
be ordering Champagne bottle service to go along with breakfast—everyone except for a single couple. They look a little out of place. For one thing, they’re over 30. Well over 30. For another, they’re wearing nonironic fanny packs.
I later learn they are Nebraskan—contest winners who arrived to take a free cruise and wound up in what must have seemed like the seventh circle of hell. The other revelers take pity on them, however, approaching the couple with friendly smiles and doing their best to make them feel welcome.
“See, this is what ShipFam is all about,” Emily Morin later tells me earnestly. “Once you’re on the boat, you’re all connected, no matter what.” Morin is the unofficial leader of ShipFam, the cadre of Holy Ship! devotees who attend the cruise every year. “I had to borrow money from my dad for that first cruise,” she confides. “I might have told him a few white lies about exactly what the money was for, though.” In order to make time for this year’s cruise, Morin quit her job as a phlebotomist.
She’s not the only medical professional on board. In a hot tub on the pool deck, a man in sunglasses tells me that he brought along more than 30 IV bags to help his buddies stay hydrated. “I’m an emt, so I can just get them back in working condition, no problem.”
It hasn’t done much good for the friend sitting beside him, though, who sports a black eye.
“Yeah, man,” the friend explains. “The second he put the needle into my arm, I completely passed out. I bashed my head right into the wall.”
He’s not alone. The number of injured passengers is climbing. I start to spot casts I hadn’t noticed before, and arms dangling limply in slings. The unstoppable force of partying has evidently met a few immovable objects. At one point, a girl loses consciousness in the pool and slips under water. She’s quickly plucked onto the deck by Holy Ship! employees, placed in a wheelchair, and taken to the infirmary.
Eventually I make my way to the artists’ deck upstairs, where the DJs have access to a VIP buffet, a pool, and a hot tub. The area is calm, orderly, and sedate. This is where the beautiful people are.
Sitting there sipping a fruit cocktail, I gaze out onto the pool deck below, where the rabble stretch their battered bodies in repose, their ill-considered tattoos glistening in the sun. I wonder about the life decisions I’ve made. How hard would it be to earn millions making music—or, to be technical, cueing up other people’s music and pressing play? Of course, it would help to be six feet tall and Swedish, but you can’t win ’em all.
I reluctantly leave the artists’ deck. It’s time for the “robe ceremony,” where the true religious nature of the Holy Ship! experience is manifest. In a lounge stocked with beer and pizza, I find a collection of passengers all wearing large blue bathrobes. This is the “OG ShipFam,” a group of true diehards who have been on every single cruise, now welcoming new adherents to their ranks (after relaxing the entry requirements).
I pull aside a man with bushy hair and sunglasses. He calls himself Broshi. “I will never miss one,” he vows. I ask him how he pays for the annual trip, which sets him back a few grand each year. “I’m a process server,” he says, “like the dude from Pineapple Express.”
Another OG ShipFam member, Alli Meers, met her boyfriend on a previous cruise. “We connected from the start,” she says. “This is our first Holy Ship! as an official couple, so we’re pretty excited.”
The OGs gather onstage for a photo, their blue robes fluttering.
Every ShipFam member I speak with testifies to how much they owe to the cruise, and just how amazing Destructo is. Their eyes seem to light up when discussing him. He’s shown up at fans’ birthday parties on the mainland, signed every body part imaginable, and generally gone out of his way to make everyone feel welcome. As odd as it sounds, given the drunk Power Rangers walking around, the spirit of the event is very heartfelt and genuine. “I would think this was all strange if the people sucked, but the people don’t suck,” Vanessa Giovacchini, one half of the female DJ group Posso, tells me in the ship’s cafeteria. “So I’m down with the cult. People are positive here—they’re open, happy, and grateful.”
I catch up with Destructo himself as he finishes up his first set of the evening. Fans swarm him as he leaves the stage, showering him with gifts: shoes with his name embroidered on the heels, a shirt, paintings.
“People ask my office for my shoe size,” he says. “It’s crazy.”
Now on the wrong side of 40, Destructo has been in the game long enough to see electronic dance music go from a ridiculed niche to one of the most popular genres in the world. Up in his room, the Sophia Loren suite, there are pictures of Loren everywhere. In fact, the Divina is dedicated to the Italian actress. Destructo cozies up to one of the photos and pretends to tickle Loren’s bountiful armpit hair.
In a few hours, he will ascend to the stage again as dawn breaks over the Atlantic, doing a set he calls “the Sunrise Sermon,” a tradition dating back to his early years as a DJ in Los Angeles in the ’90s. Noticing that people dancing at weekend warehouse parties seemed eager to keep the party going after the music stopped at four, he secured a space near some of the larger venues. “My two buddies and I dressed up like priests, and pretty soon we had a line around the block at six in the morning.”
As another night of music and consumption gets under way, I notice that while the attendees look increasingly frazzled, the ship itself has remained immaculate. A small army of workers is constantly tending to it, cleaning the soiled pools, mending the ruined handrails, and disinfecting the various reeking puddles of unknown origin with which guests have decorated the hallways.
I ask a crew member if this is his least favorite voyage of the year.
“Not really,” he tells me. “I love the energy. The main problem is that nobody ever wants to get off the ship when it’s all over. We have to pretty much kick them off.”
The sky is lightening as Destructo launches into the second hour of his marathon sermon set. I find myself standing with around 30 of the guest DJs, who have crowded the stage behind him. For them, it’s just another stop on a whirlwind circuit of never-ending parties. For me, it’s beginning to feel like something more. Though not a big EDM fan, I’m starting to understand why no one ever wants to leave. It’s not that I really want to quit my job. And I do miss my girlfriend. But I am beginning to see the beauty of the thing. A good EDM set feels like it should last forever. A perpetual pounding, racing along with one’s own heartbeat. A few days on the Holy Ship! feel like a glimpse of a brave new eternity—frightening but perfect—in which our robot overlords keep the beat going long after our worn-out bodies have reached their lonely mortal ports.
Or maybe I’m overthinking it. “I’m not trying to have any kind of message or statement,” Destructo tells me. “I’m just trying to get people to escape the real world and be able to have a good time for those three days, or whatever, and just forget about all the bullshit in the world.”
The sun rises on yet another turbulent morning at sea. In the dining hall, I spot the couple from Nebraska, dejectedly picking at their cereal and fruit. The day’s planned beach excursion has been canceled on account of rough surf, and we’ll be confined to the ship.
Most of the voyagers look exhausted, albeit still incredibly energetic—perhaps due to a “use it or lose it” mentality among those who’ve brought along various substances that can’t legally be brought back through customs.
As the Miami skyline comes into view, I find myself longing for land. No doubt some of my fellow shipgoers feel the same. In the half-light of a winter morning, the world will return to them with
an alarming clarity. Their heads will be throbbing and filled with strange visions. Their bodies will ache for a surface that isn’t shifting beneath them. And their wallets will be lighter—in some cases, much lighter, depending on the size of the bar tabs they’ll reckon with before disembarking.
And so we find ourselves, like shipwrecked sailors, stepping onto terra firma, gasping for air, our benders complete, our hangovers just beginning. I sit on the curb and take a last look at the other weary and distressed partiers, in turn dozing off, dry heaving, or just staring at cell phones now blinking back to life. One by one, they stumble off, seeming rudderless. Eventually, I stand up and hail a cab. It’s time to go home. ■
Photos by Bobby Bruderle