When HARD events founder and veteran house DJ/producer Gary Richards started Holy Ship! four years ago, he couldn’t have predicted how the event would evolve into much more than a music festival on a boat. Holy Ship! has a tendency to enchant and enlighten first-timers, ushering them into a community of like-minded, equally passionate music fans and facilitating a bond among them that lasts long after the ship returns to port.

Whether you were on the boat earlier this month or in previous years, plan to attend the February sailing, or are simply wondering what all the ShipFam fuss has been about, we’ve narrowed down our Top 15 Moments of the 2015 January sailing to convey a sense of the unique experience. From surprise guests and one-of-a-kind performances to the novelties and luxuries that exist on a cruise ship — a Duty Free store, a casino, a water slide and an infinity pool, to name a few — there are reasons why Holy Ship! keeps individuals

Make no mistake, though: Holy Ship isn’t really a cruise; it’s a non-stop party While Jam Cruise is a marathon, Holy Ship! is a sprint — one that, for more than 15 reasons, finds a special place in the hearts of attendees, artists and even cruise staff members and crew. Like Las Vegas, much of what happens on the boat or in the Bahamas stays there; and when it comes to Holy Ship! and ShipFam, one must always expect the unexpected.

Photos by Eric Fehringer / Erixsix

15. Losing cell phone service. It becomes both a blessing and a curse to be literally off the grid. Unless you’re willing to sacrifice your first born for Wi-Fi onboard, you’re using old school telephones to dial friends’ room numbers and connecting organically with the music and the surrounding crowd. Compared to traditional camping/music festival grounds, a cruise ship allows for frequent run-ins with friends; and while the urge to brag via Snapchat and social media occurs from time to time, the overall hiatus from technology is liberating and refreshing.

14. Lasers. Holy Ship! stepped up its production game for 2015, adding lasers to the main stage on the pool deck. Watching the sharp beams of light project onto the water, seemingly travelling for miles and miles across the ocean.

13. Fatheads, freak flags, floaties, totems and fantastical things. Beach wear takes up little space in a suitcase, leaving room for passengers to pack the real necessities (clothing in this instance does not fit this category): Decorative totems, fat heads, state flags, and this year’s winner of the how-did-they-manage-to-bring-this-on-the-boat award: An LED-lit red dragon that came alive via a conga -like line a spectacle worthy of a Chinese New Year celebration that weaved its way through every stage on the boat, from the main stage on the pool deck to the intimate galaxy disco. If you weren’t stoked to be watching the performance, you certainly would be after seeing such a spectacle. Plus, if you’re a Holy Ship “virgin,” you’ll have a better idea of how to pack the essentials next year.

12. Endless champagne showers. The switch from festie beer and PBR tall boys to champagne is a welcomed change of pace, and an appropriate upgrade considering the multitude of reasons to celebrate: A new year, a private party in the Bahamas exclusive to Shippers and their favorite artists. The ability to order bottles of champagne (then pop said bottles) on the dance floor anytime, anywhere is arguably a reason to celebrate in itself. Indulging in a little (or a lot) of luxury never hurt anyone, especially when you’re on vacation — which, you are. So why not partake in rain making and champagne showering? Indulging in a little bit (or a lot) of luxury never hurt anyone.

11. A marching band. Costumes are a must at any festival, and Holy Ship! is no different. While it’s not mandatory to partake in the annual theme nights (this year was “PJ night” and “Prom Night”), dressing up is encouraged regardless of the evening’s theme. Shout out to the ShipFam marching band that paraded through the boat, much to the surprise and delight of unexpected Shippers.

10. Hot tubs on hot tubs on hot tubs. There’s something to be said about watching a set — or decompressing after a long day/night of dancing —while soaking in one of the hot tubs scattered throughout the ship. Want to watch Flume’s opening set on the first night and stay there all night? Go for it. Again, the name of the game on Holy Ship! is everything in excess; you should probably have some champagne while you’re at it.

9. Secret robe ceremony. Attending Holy Ship! once is no cheap endeavor, let alone going every year for the last four years and showing up to support Gary Richards, ShipFam DJs or  at events like HARD Summer or HARD Day of the Dead — not to mention the crewed up bunch at other festivals like  Paradiso, Coachella, TomorrowWorld, SXSW and even Mad Decent Boat Party.
    A few days prior to Holy Ship!’s departure, “Senior OG” shippers received an email about an exclusive ceremony following the private beach party, during which Gary Richards — along with OG shipper and Dirtybird DJ/producer Justin Martin — gifted the loyal Shippers a blue bath robe embroidered with “Holy Ship!” as a token of his appreciation, along with a performance for an intimate little dance party.
    Richards also announced plans of yet another Holy Ship! experience in the works, which would stop at multiple countries in the Mediterranean slated for September 2016. The ceremony coincided with PJ night, and for the rest of the evening OG DJs and Shippers could be seen rocking the blue robes. Richards’ respect and gratitude for the collective loyalty by Shipfam is also evident year-round; he embraces the Shipfam community as much as they embrace him — just another reason to keep the fans returning to the ship each year.

8. Approaching the private island party…with a pirate ship. Half Moon Cay, the location of the private island party that featured Flume, Armand van Helden with a secret guest, and yoga and the beach led by Gina Turner, is a one-of-a-kind experience. The fact that the pirate ship includes a bar, restrooms and a top level with DJ decks — and it’s and experience in which only a few thousand will take part — makes it special. Top it off with a few of the cruise ship from the beach and a picturesque sunset, and it’s one of those collective “N**** We Made It” moments that can’t be replicated. 

7. Seeing the surprise guest perform again. And again. And again. Last year’s secret guest, Tiesto, had been uncovered before his first performance. In comparison, Guy Lawrence of Disclosure was kept on the DL, making his debut going b2b with Armand van Helden atop a pirate ship, was, at the risk of sounding cliche, epic. Not only that, but Lawrence performed again that night with T. Williams, on the main deck with Justin Martin, in the Yacht Club with Flume … Basically, you couldn’t really miss Disclosure if you tried.

6. GRiZ’s performance in the theater. Part of the beauty of Holy Ship! is that every artist plays twice, lessening the anxiety felt by missing one of his/her sets. Last year was GRiZ’s first Ship experience, and he embraced ShipFam and what it represents (the sentiment is not far off from the Michigan producer’s “Show Love, Spread Love” motto) immediately. GRiZ’s 2014 set in the theater was a legit dance party for those who witnessed it, but the audience was less than what one would have expected. But after a killer performance and a massive turnout at HARD Summer in Los Angeles and a year of touring and releasing more music, Griz performed to a packed audience during both sets this year. The first was on the main deck, during a windy spell that threatened to shut his laptop every few minutes. “Shipfam for life!” GRiZ yelled over the mic after bringing the heat in the theater set, expressing his mutual love for the community and excitement to be back on the Ship.

5. ATrak’s rap parties. Remember the bottle popping discussion? If you weren’t partaking in such antics during ATrak’s annual rap-themed parties — one that was held during the day by the pool and another at night during a 2-hour b2b set with DJ Craze — you were doing it wrong.Throwing down remixes of today’s hottest hip hop songs, as well as the new classics dating back to 2004 and prior, the champagne showers were flowing nonstop, and may or may not have felt like a rap music video from 2004. It was awesome.

4. Pretty Lights closing out the festival with an appearance from Odesza. Pretty Lights, a Holy Ship! “virgin” until this year, concluded Holy Ship! with an extended set in the two-story theater, ending with his classic “Finally Moving.” He also brought fellow Ship “virgins” Odesza back on stage to perform “One Day They’ll Know,” one of their remixes off of his most recent album that’s heavy on the feels and made for a memorable experience.

3. Remembering ShipFam member Zack Fortune. New York-based Shipfam member and DJ Zack Fortune attended Holy Ship!. Not long after returning home, Fortune died in an accident while riding his bike. Mourned and loved by Shipfam both local to New York and around the world, a benefit was organized after his death to assist Fortune’s mother with the funeral costs. During this year’s Sail Away party, however, a fat head of Zack Fortune was passed up to Richards during Boys Noize’s first set, who displayed it in front of the crowd. It brought tears to the eyes of those who knew or were close to Fortune personally, not to mention those who didn’t but seemed to understand the sentiment anyway.

2. Absorbing the beauty of it all. Whether you buy into the whole “ShipFam” thing or not, you get what you put into the festival — and let’s be honest, you put in a LOT to get here. It’s evident that most of the performers hope to return to Holy Ship! as much as the fans. “Everyone’s in the same boat,” and it’s refreshing to feel a lack of separation between the artists and the fans.

1. The Sunrise Sermon. Watching the sunrise during the first-ever “Sunrise Sermon” from the “HARDFather” (a.k.a. DESTRUCTO) was a highlight for many. The nearly three-hour set was originally supposed to take place outside, but was moved indoors at the last minute. Although initially disappointed, the set itself made up for it, evidenced by the packed dance floor from 3:30 a.m. until the music stopped. Shippers gathered outside as the night sky turned into pink and peach-colored hues, observing quietly as the bright, warm sun slowly broke through the clouds.