A floating Woodstock? Mardi Gras at sea? Those aren't the typical descriptions of vacations on a cruise ship, but many passengers on two charter sailings featuring live, improv-heavy music said that's how it was.
"It was the real Love Boat. It was a lovefest," said Steve Bate, a long-haired real estate agent from Wellington, Fla., after getting off the ship.
The Jam Cruises brought together more than a dozen so-called jambands and disc jockeys ranging from Les Claypool of Primus to the New Orleans-flavored Rebirth Brass Band. Most are known for their free-form, improvisational jams, which brought out about 2,000 passengers who are usually more comfortable in Birkenstocks than in cramped cabins.
The music helps lure people who normally think of cruises as a stuffy luxury for the rich. Jessica Brooks had never been on one before and found the personal attention a little unusual.
"We came to dinner the first night. It's a formal dining room. They pull the chair out for you, they put the napkin on your lap," said Brooks, 24, a graduate student from Fayetteville, Ark., who went on a Jam Cruise. "We don't typically go to those kind of restaurants."
Two four-day cruises were chartered on an Imperial Majesty Cruise Line ship. They left in early January, using Fort Lauderdale as a home port and making stops in the Bahamas and Key West. Each cruise had more than a dozen bands, with music including jazz, rock, electronic dance, funk and fusion. Concerts were held in theaters or poolside under the sun and DJs spun sets in a club. Many artists played together in impromptu jam sessions that sometimes lasted until around dawn.
"We had a hell of a jam session.… Like 50 musicians on one stage, just going for it," said Philip Frazier, the Rebirth Brass Band's tuba player. Frazier, 37, said the swaying of the ship even helped people get into the groove and dance. The floating music festival concept isn't new. The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise first sailed in 1992 and Taj Mahal, Ike Turner and others have played on board. Carnival Cruise Lines has offered a ship to the Rock Boat for the past three years, featuring college rock acts such as Sister Hazel and Cowboy Mouth.
One of the appeals of the trips is that passengers get to meet their favorite musicians.
"Usually, you go see a band, they go backstage and you don't have any contact with them. But on this trip… you're hanging out with them. You're eating dinner next to them. You're watching them run around with their kids or their wives," said Brooks.
Musicians also enjoy getting to be around their fans.
"Taj Mahal is sometimes the first person on the dance floor," said Roger Naber, managing partner of the Blues Cruise.
Many are also drawn by the possibility of a one-time jam session among eclectic musicians who usually wouldn't play together. Organizers have recorded some of the spontaneous songs to possibly release them.
The Jam Cruises attracted mostly people in their 20s and 30s, many coming for all-day and all-night partying. That usually isn't possible on the theme sailings that cruise lines have run for decades, because the ship is shared with regular vacationers who aren't keen on carousing until 6 a.m.
With the young crowd and music known for an anything-goes attitude, the question of drug use comes up. Even Jam Cruise promotional material says "anything is possible in international waters" and people on an Internet message board make veiled references to drugs on board.
But Imperial Majesty President Arthur M. Pollack said that the policies were in place to monitor drug use, which he said is a possibility on any cruise. Organizers are also taking a risk at a time when tourism is still recovering from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and a tough economy for jobs. Andy Levine, who manages Sister Hazel and organizes the Rock Boat, said it costs about $1 million to charter a cruise ship.
Levine said he broke even the first year and has begun to make money. Josh Moore, who helped Jam Cruise creator Mark Brown organize the trips, said they hoped to at least break even.
The three cruises range from about $500 to $2,900 per person, depending on cabin size, and include meals. But partiers beware: alcoholic drinks and gambling are not included, so bring extra money to indulge.
The next Blues Cruise leaves Feb. 7 from Tampa and the Rock Boat departs Oct. 7 from Miami. No date has been set for next year's Jam Cruise.
If You Go…
"ROCK BOAT" CRUISE: Oct. 7 to 11, Miami to Grand Cayman. Cabins starting at $499. For details, visit www.therockboat.com. BLUES CRUISE: The Feb. 7 cruise is sold out. For information about the 2005 cruise or for more information, contact (888) BLUESIN or visit www.bluescruise.com. JAM CRUISE: Contact (303) 544-0191 or visit www.jamcruise.com.