First came Holy Ship!, the original US rave cruise, setting sail from Miami each year since it was launched in January 2012 under the aegis of Gary Richards, alias DJ Destructo. Then came the Ship Fam, a bunch of US clubbers who had made friendships for life on the Ocean rave. But the Ship Fam realised that once a year wasn’t enough for a get-together, so one of the family, Kory Sasnett, owner of NV’D Records, started organizing more regular parties. First it was the 100-capacity Camp Ship Fam event in North Carolina; then Ship Fam parties in a club in his home in the same state, hosting 22 shows over the past two-and-a-half years; then came British producer/DJ and Holy Ship regular Doorly, and his suggestion that Kory take the party international. Now here we are on the idyllic Croatian Island of Obonjan, with a 300-strong cohort clubbers and DJs putting together a festival that stands out for its sense of community, family and ambition.
The island of Obonjan was originally used as a scout camp in the 70s, and is now a location for private creative arts and wellbeing events. For many of the Ship Fam gathered here this summer, it’s their first excursion outside of America, and a window of opportunity to explore the world. There’s an air almost of pilgrimage as revellers arrive on winding grey roads heated by the Croatian sun to the port of Šibenik, where parting clouds and a gentle sea frame the distant island.
Disembarking from the ferry onto this new land, people greet each other with intense warmth. “This festival is built on intimacy and trust – you’ve got no issues ever, everybody loves each other, we’re the perfect family,” explains Kory in a laid-back tone, his name-tag reading “no introduction needed” – this is the man responsible for bringing his friends and many others together at Obonjan. “We basically figure out how much something costs, then divide it by how many people can go, figure out a budget and everybody pays their bit. There’s no profit in anything and nobody cares – we just wanna get all of our friends together in one place.”
Throwing a festival on a remote island has its challenges, but after 54 weeks of planning and many sleepless nights the programming is thoroughly organised, with boat transfers, regular meals, wristbands and an information booklet reminding us that it is a ‘leave no trace festival’, urging people to be considerate and to respect the island as well as each other.
“I’ve been DJing twenty years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Doorly, smiling as his eyes take in the graceful, rocky landscape brimming with dark green shrubbery and robust trees. “Kory said that he wanted to do a party on an island, so I told him about Obonjan which my friends [UK promoters Sound Channel] run. I introduced them online and they started talking. Obonjan is a super chin-strokey, yoga-type retreat where they do events like Electric Elephant. Then it started coming together, and before you know it, my flights were being booked!”
Although it requires a certain affluence to attend Ship Fam Island, the crew come in all shapes and sizes. The festival’s daily themes see the clientele become dancing dinosaurs, pirates, Pokémon, mermaids and even (Where’s) Waldo. The main pavilion stage has a DIY feel, with wooden crates and concrete floor surrounded by swirling yellow lights twinkling on the bouncing bodies below to the face-melting sounds of Mija. Alex from DC normally works in insurance, but today is clad in a lion onesie and glitter, says he’s keen to see Claude VonStroke. “Claude is the reason I love house music”, he says, while gliding round the dancefloor. Seconds later, the Dirtybird label boss appears, sporting a name-tag reading ‘Papa Claude’; he mills around the margins of the stage catching up with friends. “Since Holy Ship! they’ve been having these side parties for the past five or six years, and this is the biggest side party of all!” he chuckles. “More than a hundred people have come up to me, like, ‘Thank you for coming, we’re so happy to see you! This is so great!’ That’s the attitude of this party.” His speech is cut off when a man in a beaded jumpsuit hugs him and asks for a selfie. DJ and punter are equals here.
The line-up was kept a secret until the ship fam made it onto the island, so the surprise and gratitude expressed to the DJs is heart-felt. The DJs are all familiar to the crowd, especially those who play at Envy’d Lounge, Kory’s 50-capacity club in North Carolina, where they play intimate, extended sets.
No stranger to the scene is Billy Kenny, a UK DJ whose career has skyrocketed in the US over the last two years. He welcomes his ship fam aboard Champagne, the island’s party boat, reminds them to not litter the ocean, before exclaiming: “Love you all, have a great fucking time!” and downs a shot from the upper deck. This is his first performance to an American crowd since his US visa was revoked earlier this year. With wiry, dark, protruding hair, leopard-print shorts and an unquenchable energy, he’s like the leader of the lost boys, guiding his cheering friends on a musical voyage. He drops bassy bangers such as Green Velvet’s ‘Percolator’ and fellow Leeds producer Will Easton’s ‘Technic’, as well as sending Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ booming across the ocean.
Elsewhere, NV’D Records label manager Faren Strnad is also greeted with love and attention during her techno set at the pavilion. Her performance is sleek, potent and poised, friends chanting her name throughout. For Faren, who has only been DJing for two years and works as a nurse in her day job, the reception was overwhelming: “If it wasn’t for everybody supporting me, I wouldn’t even be here. This is the most selfless crowd you could ever be in – people aren’t concerned about making themselves great, they’re concerned about making somebody else the best that they could be. It’s beautiful.”
This team spirit is in evidence throughout the festival, with house DJs going back-to-back with drum ’n’ bass DJs at ‘Drum N Breakfest’ pool parties, and even a talent show featuring everything from beer chugging to naked dancing to a real life proposal between a couple who used to party together at Holy Ship!.
The final night takes place at the amphitheatre. Green and purple lasers turning warm drops of rain into tiny orbs of colour that splash onto the ancient stone. The crowd are unfazed, covered by complimentary transparent ponchos that resemble spacesuits and turning the island into a foreign planet. As the rain persists and the party is moved to the covered pavilion, volunteers help to transport equipment safely. UK bass heavyweight Gawp brings the noise back onto the decks, and soon the stormy skies are forgotten and the dancefloor is electrified by Doorly’s disco groovers. Like the embers of a fire, the rave softens and begins to die down at around 10am the next day, followed by a moment of silence as at last the party fizzles away into the wind.
Sailing away from the island and back towards the reality of the mainland, the ship fam are weary yet serene. The stories shared on Obonjan will live on in the glittering waves that pulse on the shore behind us like the beat of a bassline. A girl in a black vest with silver letters reading ‘ship fam’ smokes a cigarette and looks out to sea, perhaps planning her next adventure. Like Obonjan itself, the ship fam has a special beauty – somewhere where people live in harmony, with no rules other than to look out for each other.