Onboard the cruise ship Carnival Inspiration, I’m greeted by gaudy Vegas casino decorations and half-naked women in white offering free hugs and official Groove Cruise lanyards.
Over half of the crowd is already working on their buzz by the time we go through the mandatory cruise ship safety drill. A group of guys with heavy accents by the ship’s outdoor pool stage are chanting up at the floor-to-ceiling windows of the suites above them, “Shoe your teets!” Fake boobs press against the glass in response.
It’s 5 p.m., and the Groove Cruise is about to begin.
The premise of this cruise is 72 hours of nonstop music — mostly of the house, techno and trance varieties, plus some hip-hop thrown in. Founder Jason Beukema of Whet Travel was a veteran of normal cruises, because it's his family’s preferred type of vacation, and he was always a little bored. So in 2004, he hosted his first music-centered cruise, and in the decade since it’s grown from 125 people to thousands.
Beukema has been so successful that other event promoters have followed his lead — think HARD’s Holy Ship!, which had its maiden voyage in 2012, or the Mad Decent Boat Party, which set sail for the first time in 2014.
For EDM, the cruise thing has a lot of perks. For starters, the music can literally play all day and all night. Even in the buffet rooms. At 9 in the morning.
Also, there are no laws governing sale of alcohol in international waters. In L.A., the 2 a.m. cutoff time for booze is a real kiss of death for after-hours clubs. On the water, no such problem exists.
The resulting three-day floating festival feels like a cross between a rave, a private yacht party and the first week of college in the dorms. My fellow Groove Cruisers aren't college-age, however; the age range is somewhere on the order of 21 to 55, with plenty of people occupying either end of the spectrum.
On the night we disembark (a Friday), the theme is “50 Shades of Disney.” A girl in the bathroom asks me to help reattach the fake braid for her Jasmine costume. Outside, more than a few people are sporting full Star Wars Stormtrooper attire. I’m dressed down in just shorts and a tank, and feeling sort of out of place. There are only a few others like me, either half-assing it or going with no costume at all. Everyone else looks as if they spent weeks preparing.
The best part of the night is drifting between the stages. There are two outside — one by the pool, one by the waterslide — and several inside, including one in a hallway (seriously) and the raviest of them all, the theater, where Darude and Ferry Corsten bump tunes for pasty-clad women and shirtless guys high on ecstasy.
The sun sets, and we float toward Catalina so slowly that it takes all night to make it. At 10 a.m., Beukema’s chipper voice tells us over the loudspeaker that it’s time to get up and head to our beach party. Rooms full of ravers roll over in their sleep — Friday’s last set didn’t end until an hour ago, at 9 a.m. Saturday morning.
By now, most people have gotten some variation of the same mom text to be wary of the hurricane in Mexico that we seem to be heading straight toward (we’re not). If there’s any storm in Catalina, though, we’re the ones bringing it.
On the island, we’re suddenly thrust into crowds of families and tourists, walking the 20 minutes from the dock to the beach club in full “naughty nautical” attire. A cluster of kids takes a picture of a group I run into on the walk, us brandishing bottles of cheap supermarket champagne and raspberry-flavored vodka, them glancing nervously back at their parents.
To fellow Groove Cruise passersby, a guy named Ali asks, “Do you guys want shots? We can’t bring the bottles inside,” and pours vodka into their open mouths. Weirdly enough, so far no one is sloppy. Ali and his vodka amass a group of 10 or so of us, including some new friends who came from the mainland to try to sneak into our beach party.
By 2 or 3 p.m., our private beach club is packed. Blowup sea animals and inner tubes fly through the air and hit people in the head, but no one gets angry. The soundtrack is Italian sibling DJ duo Vinai, who throw out banger after banger like sacrificial offerings to the undulating crowd.
The last call to get back on the ship is at 4 p.m., and by 3:30 droves of drunken partiers are trudging that same 20 minutes back to the docks. On the way, I see one guy throw up. He’s the first and only one I see all weekend.
That evening I get the chance to chat with Paul Oakenfold — whose set starts at 2 a.m. that night — about how he sees all this. Groove Cruise is his second “festival on a boat,” as he calls it. His first was Kandy Kruise in 2011, which was actually pretty much the same deal as what he’s doing here now — even the ship is the same.
I ask Oakenfold what it’s like to be surrounded by fans no matter where he goes this weekend. “It’s quite pleasant,” he says. “I do enjoy hanging out.” He goes on to say that our fellow passengers even influenced his set for the night. “A lot of people are coming up to me asking me to play classics. I really wasn’t going to, but now I think I will.”
We meet up with another DJ, Tatiana, and she shows me a picture on her phone of her dressed up as a man. “I play tech-house, but I wasn’t getting booked for the underground shows that I wanted,” she explains, “People weren’t taking me seriously because of the way I look. I got so sick of it. I dressed up as a guy for two years to get those gigs.”
Tatiana is the edgy sort of pretty, with big, earnest eyes and a partially shaved head under her long hair. As a guy, she pulls off an all-black, scrawny emo-kid kind of look. Since exposing herself as a woman, her story has gotten her a major movie deal and a music supervisor role, as well as a 2 a.m. set time tonight.
Eventually, we get to talking about the cruise so far and the varied crowd. “Basically, it's a way for billionaire CEOs to blow off steam,” she says. “These people work all the time and never get a chance to have fun. This is their chance, and they get really into it.”
She makes a good point. Here on the ship, otherwise straitlaced workaholics spend the weekend partying outside of the public eye. This might also explain why some of my fellow cruisers take the costume themes so seriously. They don't want to be easily recognizable in Instagram photos.
By Sunday morning, the fact that there’s music even at breakfast is getting to be a bit much for me. After Oakenfold’s set, I wandered around to find that seemingly the entire ship was still awake, still dancing. Now — after another 10 a.m. wake-up call — there are significantly fewer bodies walking around. The ones who are have mostly been up all night.
Today we’re dropped off by vans at a bar in Ensenada, Mexico, and no one tells us where to go. I end up running into my ship-cabin neighbors — guys I actually met the day before while hanging with Ali’s crowd on the way to Catalina, and whom I’ve run into approximately 30 times since. That’s part of Groove Cruise that lives up to the hype: You really do form actual friendships. How can you not, with so many chance interactions?
The day club is dark and reminds me of an L.A. nightclub, which is a bit jarring given that it’s only 2 in the afternoon. Even the music — Dvbbs is DJing — is more nightclubby than what is played onboard. I stay for an hour, then grab some Mexican pizza on the way back to port. Our Groove Cruise leaders are very clear: Don’t be late or the ship will leave without you.
Later that night, I sit in the lobby charging my phone, which has spent pretty much the entire trip below 25 percent. If I weren’t a reporter, I probably wouldn’t even bother — most people don’t. Tonight’s theme is “Halloween,” and I nod at passing zombies, superheroes and nonspecific sexy animals. Several people sit down next to me to talk for a bit before moving along again, like waves.
One guy in a purple mask — I honestly don’t know what he's supposed to be — spooks me through the glass at my back, then comes around to apologize. I ask him how he’s liking the cruise so far, and he tells me he hasn’t slept since Wednesday night. “We drove overnight from Arizona on Thursday, and I obviously haven’t slept on the boat," he says. "But I’m prepared this year.”
Purple Mask explains that this is his second Groove Cruise. Last year, he wasn’t ready for it — so this year, he spent the two months leading up to this weekend gradually increasing his partying to every night, so he’d have enough stamina to get through the weekend. “My friends were like, ‘What are you doing?!’” he laughs.
My new purple friend excuses himself to go party more, and I decide that tonight, I’ll do what everyone’s been telling me to do since Friday: See the sunrise. It’s only 11 p.m., so I buy a Red Bull and steel myself for the five hours ahead.
Turns out, it’s pretty easy to pass five hours on a rave cruise. I join the stereotypical kandi kid ravers in the theater for Dirty South’s two-hour set. I take a break for 24-hour pizza at the buffet. I go to the pool for Guy Gerber’s deep house set with a friend I met two days prior, who is with some Australians she claims to have adopted for the night. We stick our feet in the hot tub, and I run into (almost literally) my neighbors again, this time while walking snug against the banister of a spiral staircase.
At 5:50 a.m., the Australian adopter and I are the first in line for the breakfast buffet. Out by the pool, the last set of the weekend is under way, and everyone still awake is partying like it’s midnight, not 6 a.m. Light creeps into the sky, but still no sunrise yet.
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In two and a half hours, we’ll get another wake-up call from our cruise director, Jason Beukema, this time telling us to get off the boat for good. My friend and I talk about all the people we’ve met this weekend, and how this trip — her first cruise, let alone rave cruise — has inspired her to seriously consider Holy Ship! this year. I eat my hashbrowns and consider that I’ve actually found a Groove Cruise family.
When the sun still hasn’t risen at 6:15, we decide to call it a night. Right now, two hours of sleep is more important than one moment of sunrise. Plus, there's always next year's Groove Cruise to look forward to. Maybe if I train like Purple Mask, I can build up enough stamina by then to see a sunrise.