For most people, Holy Ship lasts three days – and the other 362 days of the year are spent preparing for Holy Ship. You see it everywhere, people handing out custom wristbands and stickers, wearing intricate costumes, sharing fun accessories, it seems like everyone on the Ship was trying to make someone else’s day special. “Ask not what the Ship can do for you, but what you can do for the Ship”.

Five years in, Holy Ship has changed a lot. That’s bound to happen. There is now two separate sailings, the sets are broadcast on SiriusXM, things feel a little less spontaneous, everyone is older, there’s a much larger security presence, and the list goes on. While many may reminisce of the first few years that felt so free and lawless, Holy Ship is still the greatest experience in dance music. The “Shipfam” community built around it is the strongest and most inviting I’ve witnessed in all music – new shippers are initiated upon entering the boat. There’s no seniority, no one cares how old you are, or how many times you’ve been on the ship- everyone just wants everyone else to have fun.

Musically, the team at HARD deserves a ton of credit for putting together an incredible line up from top to bottom. While missing the ‘heavy-hitters’ at the top like Skrillex, Diplo, Pretty Lights, and the Kaskade’s of previous ships, this lineup featured an incredibly stellar undercard. Names like Marshmello, Rezz, SNBRN, and Malaa have significantly raised their stock since the line-ups were announced. You heard way more buzz about these performances than most headliners. This year’s ship definitely felt like a coming out party for many new artists who will leave the ship with a slew of new fans.

More so than ever before, you couldn’t turn your head without seeing some sort of Dirtybird merch, whether on a shipper or one of the six Dirtybird artists on the ship. Head honcho Claude Von Stroke came on board as the expected special guest, throwing down an extended set as the ‘Dirtybird All-Stars’ set, and again during the Bahamas Fish Fry. Dirtybird’s Justin Martin has become sort of an unofficial mascot of Holy Ship, performing on both sailings, as well as touring with HARD’s Gary Richards in between as part of the ‘Ship2Ship’ tour. Justin’s sets throughout the year become unofficial Holy Ship meet-ups, and he’s easy to find on the ship and generally approachable to fans.

If Gary Richards aka Destructo is the king of Holy Ship and Justin Martin is the prince, that could very well make New York City’s Subset the jester. The long time shipper got his first official on-ship sets this year in the Pantheon Theater and cemented his status in Holy Ship history by leading a parade of over 100 men dressed as Wonder Woman to his set in honor of Super Hero night. Subset’s rowdy set also saw a bunch of people pass out custom Holy Ship pizza boxes filled with pizza creating an epic pizza party, while Subset literally shook the floor of the theater with a blend of various styles of bass music. Subset may have been the most visible person on the ship – besides his scheduled set, you couldn’t miss the guy and his boombox performing renegade sets anywhere in everywhere – that includes inside elevators, on random cabin balconies, a trap breakfast, and by the pool deck late night. 

You may not expect 6:00am at Thursday night to be one of the most popular sets of the trip, but that’s exactly what happened with Destructo’s Sunrise Sermon. This, to me, should be pushed as the signature event of the ship – as the sun rose, Destructo and a slew of other DJs (and a guy in a T-Rex costume) took over the DJ booth with what was an epic three hour back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to a lot more backs set. There were too many DJs to name. Everyone still awake at 9am should get a badge of honor, and I was truly taken aback by how many people were there at 6am for the start.

The other great thing about Holy Ship is, with two sets each, each artist has a little room to fool around, experiment, and go outside the box, allowing them to stray from their normal club sets. You get to see people having fun. I saw Cory Enemy throwing down some 80’s bangers in the middle of his set, Athletixx spent some time doing hip-hop classics, Porter Robinson unleashed some experimental industrial sounds on the pool deck, Mija pumped up one of her sets with some extra bass, Justin Martin closed down the ship with a drum and bass set – and that’s just the half of it. Without the pressures of a main stage festival slot with one hour to hit your high points, everyone, including the artists, can just have a lot more fun. It is truly a party. For example, during the aforementioned sermon set, it felt like you were watching a bunch of friends goofing around for themselves, high-fiving each other for great song choices – all while the crowd was just watching.

You can’t really fit all of Holy Ship into words. It’s impossible. There’s too much to see, too much to do. One can go on and on here, all the crazy things you see, the hidden gems you can find. It is simply the best, most inclusive dance music community in the world. And, for my money, still the best dance music experience all year.

Written by Justin Charles, Photos by Dave Vann

Full gallery of Dave Vann’s photos can be seen below: