By Nathan Yetter
In 1994, the band Sister Hazel released the song “All For You,” which became a hit upon re-release in 1997. They worked hard to build a dedicated fan base, which became known as Hazelnuts. Looking for a way to further their connection with the fans, Sister Hazel chartered half of a cruise ship, invited one other band, and organized an opportunity where these music lovers could interact with their favorite band in a unique setting. This first sailing, in 2001, became known as The Rock Boat the following year. Since that time, The Rock Boat has become an annual destination for passionate music fans to see some of their favorite bands. Fans are also introduced to new artists that will invariably become an integral part of their musical fabric, now labeled as “The World’s Greatest Floating Music Festival.”
The company that charters the cruise is Sixthman, based out of Atlanta, Georgia. There are five members of Sister Hazel, but Andy Levine was their manager, the “sixth man” of the band. He has gone on to start a company that has become the industry leader in music-themed cruises. Sixthman is mostly responsible for choosing the artists that make up the roster each year, but Sister Hazel has input as well. Also offered is a competition called Soundcheck, where bands may submit their music in an attempt to be voted on by the people that attend.
After the trip each year, surveys are sent out to all of the Rock Boaters so that their voices can be heard about their experience, along with an opportunity to suggest artists for future sailings. In previous years, artists such as Zac Brown Band, Collective Soul, Brandi Carlile, Better Than Ezra, Hanson, Barenaked Ladies, and Matt Nathanson have headlined the festival.
This year’s installment of The Rock Boat, aboard the Norwegian Pearl, left out of Miami, Florida, on Friday, January 24, and returned on Wednesday, January 29, with stops in Harvest Caye, Belize, and Roatan, Honduras. However, the port stops have become somewhat academic for the festival attendees, who are there to spend time going to the glut of concerts taking place on the boat from roughly noon until 2am each day (except for when the ship is at a port). Celebrating their 20th year, conveniently enough the number of the cruise corresponds with the year (20/ 2020), Sister Hazel and Sixthman brought back some longtime favorite artists from years past. That included Tonic, Needtobreathe, and for the first time ever, San Diego’s own Switchfoot. Sixthman added two artists to the lineup, and they surprised the attendees with TRB veterans Will Hoge and Stephen Kellogg as stowaways, rounding out the roster to 34 acts. With all of the artists staying on the boat, it is nearly impossible not to see a guitarist from a band you just saw on stage standing in line for the buffet ahead of you a short time later, or your favorite drummer enjoying a show right next to you. It is an immersive experience where individuals are brought together because of their love of music. Legitimate friendships are forged between artist and fans, going far beyond the five days of the cruise and extending into personal lives afterward.
Every act plays three shows during the cruise, and with five venues around the ship, there is almost assuredly live music being performed somewhere on the boat at any given time. Furthermore, events like yoga, flip cup, and the storytelling-themed Songwriters in the Round concerts offer unique experiences for those seeking something more than the traditional concert settings. Artist collaborations are another highlight for all when musicians join in other bands for one or more songs. Having asked an artist about these collaborations, he mentioned that many of the groups are at the very least aware of each other, and some are even great friends, but that touring limits their time together. However, on The Rock Boat, they are together for five days, and they make the most of it.
Artists aren’t the only ones making connections during the cruise. In fact, the genesis of several marriages leads back to meeting on The Rock Boat, including the author of this very piece. There is a phrase that echoes this sentiment that goes, “Strangers become Friends, and Friends become Family.” This quote is generally accepted as figurative but occasionally becomes literal. It’s also referred to as “A family reunion, for family you get to choose.” It’s uncertain who can be credited for those quotes, but one quote that encapsulates The Rock Boat ideally is from Sister Hazel lead singer Ken Block. He has said about The Rock Boat, “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it”.
Many music festivals require concert-goers to camp, making opportunities for restful sleep and hot showers a luxury, if available at all. On The Rock Boat, as well as other Sixtman cruises, staterooms are comfortable and attended to by the friendly Norwegian Cruise Line staff. There are also many dining options onboard, offering an array of cuisines. Just try naming other music festivals that have a pool, jacuzzis, and opportunities for massages.
No music-themed cruise would be complete without an option for attendees to purchase items from the bands they get to hear. The on-board Merch Store offers event-branded items such as posters, shirts, hats, and pint glasses, but the groups bring on their own tour shirts, CDs, and even Rock Boat-exclusive items.
Next year’s Rock Boat has already been announced, with Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness headlining in 2021. Sister Hazel will, of course, be back, along with four other confirmed artists. This cruise isn’t the most expensive vacation, but since it is a charter, it is more pricey than other traditional cruises. However, the experience over five days could very well become someone’s highlight of their year. Not all of the bands will be familiar to you, but there’s a reason that Sister Hazel considered calling the cruise the “Trust Us Festival.” Trust Sixthman and Sister Hazel with your vacation, and they will provide an incredible, potentially life-changing event for music lovers. The Rock Boat XXI leaves January 27 – February 1, 2021, from Miami with stops in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and Grand Cayman.