DAY 1 – Tuesday, February 18, 2014

I knew it was risky to fly to Miami on the same day the cruise embarked, especially with the unpredictability of recent weather, but Kristy and I didn’t want to take off more work than necessary. We woke Tuesday morning at 5 am to catch our 7:30 am flight from DFW. We arrived at the gate as they were starting the boarding process. They quickly stopped boarding because of additional “mechanical inspection” required on the plane. 7:30 came and went. Around 8:00, they said that they had the clear to continue boarding the plane. Once everyone was situated in their seats, the captain made an announcement that there were new mechanical concerns that needed to be checked out before pulling away from the gate.

The next announcement at 8:30 said that it was determined the plane would need two new tires. Passengers began to grumble. The final announcement we heard was that it would take at least another hour before we could take off, but we would be allowed to leave the aircraft until it was ready. Kristy, being always prepared, knew of other flights to Miami that morning. She called American Airline’s 800 number and confirmed that there were available seats on both the 9:10 and 10:00. We grabbed our carry-on bags and jumped off the plane. Now 8:55, the gate agent said that we’d never be able to make it from Terminal C to Terminal A before they closed the doors. Kristy replied that she should at least give us the chance. She did and printed us new boarding passes. And we sprinted. Last call and we had the gate in our sites. Success.

It was a good thing we brought only backpacks and didn’t check any bags. We heard stories of people who made it onto the cruise with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Once we arrived in Miami, we took a quick cab ride directly to the Port of Miami arriving with plenty of time to spare. As we went through the embarkation process, I started getting dizzy. At first I thought it was just travel exhaustion from the stressful morning, but I now know it was more than that. I was overwhelmed. Nervous. Excited. Surrounded by prog fans and prog bands. That’s right. With over 40 bands playing on a cruise ship, there is no back entrance. The bands went through the same boarding as the guests, often with instrument in hand. I spun around scanning the room for people I recognized. “There’s one of the guitarists from Periphery. And there’s The Safety Fire.”

As we walked onto the ship, Sixthman reps were there to high five us. The ramp led directly into the Atrium. Pete Trewavas (Transatlantic, Marillion) was sitting at the bar chatting with friends. As we wandered around for a moment, getting our bearings on the ship, we kept passing artists. They were all just hanging around, talking with fans and other artists. Completely surreal.

We made our way to the buffet to grab a quick lunch dinner. As we sat there eating, more artists passed by. Neal Morse (Transatlantic) was getting dessert. Roine Stolt (Transatlantic, The Flower Kings) walked into the dining area carrying a plate and looking around for a table. A fan walked up and said, “Roine, are you looking for a table?”

In his thick Swedish accent Roine replied, “Kind of.”

“Follow me,” the fan insisted. He lead Roine over to a table, where the guitarist graciously sat and enjoyed lunch with a group of 3 fans.

At 3pm we were all required to attend a safety briefing. Our muster station was E2. Getting there promptly, we had to wait for everyone else who was assigned E2 to arrive. Members of Anathema walked in. Then the bassist for Bigelf. The Dear Hunter was already seated at a table near us. By this point, I was coming to the realization that this was going to be a fairly unique week. We were on a floating hotel with many of our favorite musicians, and they were passengers just the same as us.

The concerts on the cruise all happened within 5 different venues: The Pool Stage, Stardust Theater, Spinnaker Lounge, The Atrium, and New Millenium Stage. The Pool Stage accommodated the most fans. It was located on the 12th floor pool deck. On a normal cruise, this deck would have 2 pools and several hot tubs. For concert cruises, they cover one of the pools with a platform so the audience can get right up against the stage. There’s a gazebo in the middle of the open area where the sound board was set up. The pool on the back side of the gazebo remains open, as well as most of the hot tubs. An upper deck on 13 is lined with sun loungers and overlooks the pool stage. It’s an unusual setup for a concert. Fans can sun, swim and soak while watching their favorite bands. (Or, if they are like me, just rock out in front of the stage.)

The Stardust Theater is your typical cruise theater with stadium seating and balcony level. It accommodates 1,250 people. The remaining venues are much smaller. The Spinnaker Lounge has semicircle booth seating around the perimeter with a small stage in front of the central dance floor. The Atrium and New Millenium Stage are temporary stages set up in the common areas of the ship’s lower levels near restaurants and bars.

The lineup originally consisted of 23 bands. Each band would get two 1-hour blocks on different days and different stages. There was an exception for the 2 headlining acts Transatlantic and PSMS (Portnoy, Sheehan, McAlpine and Sherinian) who got to play slightly longer sets. Portnoy ran a contest where bands could submit videos to be chosen for 3 remaining spots. According to press release, Portnoy had such a hard time choosing that he decided to open up the 5th stage (New Millenium Stage at Bar City) so that an additional 17 bands could join. Each of the bands from this contest only got one set. That made for a total of 43 bands! We joked that there would be more artists than fans.

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