The Boat to Perdition

Will 2006 prove friendlier for the casino cruise business?

Around 11:00 p.m. January 6, three miles out on a chilly Atlantic Ocean, Mike Biancone began to sweat. On the inaugural evening run of the Horizon's Edge, the New York native was down $400 and in line to get more cash from the ATM.

But with only an hour left before Miami-Dade County's only casino cruise would return to shore, the cash machine lost its signal. The satellite TV was out too. Like a pet dog preparing to bed down for the night, the boat began circling — but to no avail.

"It's just as well," said Biancone, dressed in a light gray sweater and black jeans, with brown hair that stops above his shoulders. "I probably would have just lost more money." His face brightens slightly. "I got a waitress's phone number though." He chuckled. "I paid $400 for a phone number."

With hurricanes and high gas prices, 2005 was not a good year for South Florida casino cruises, which travel several miles out beyond state jurisdiction so that passengers can gamble legally. Four boats went out of business and two were involved in serious corruption cases. Last month Florida lawmakers approved slot machines at four Broward gaming venues, further increasing competition in a market now flush with options, including Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and Miccosukee Resort & Gaming.

David Zion, the tall, tanned, and goateed CEO of Horizon's Edge (the company and the boat have the same name), which has successfully run seasonal cruises near Boston — and also once docked a ship in Palm Beach — is determined to make a go of it year-round in Miami. His three-level boat, which holds 500 passengers but drew only 130 on its maiden voyage, has taken over the lease once held by Casino Princesa at Bayfront Park.

Zion and company pay $640,000 annually to operate daytime and evening cruises seven days a week. "This is about hospitality, with good bands, good food," said Zion, who joined his staff on the first night in business. "You have the camaraderie of other players around you, the interaction with the dealer. It's legal and you get your money then and there."

Like most casino cruises, the Horizon's Edge includes a buffet in its $19.95 admission. Upon the ship's 7:15 p.m. departure two weeks ago, passengers thronged a buffet that included pork loin, chicken with plantains, caesar salad, stuffed shells, and a dessert table. Alcoholic beverages were not included in the ticket price.

On the upper deck, a salsa band played as the ship trolled past downtown Miami's glittering skyline. A few couples took to the dance floor, and others smoked cigarettes on the outside deck.

Biancone, the New Yorker who is a hurricane clean-up worker, stood outside in the breeze with two friends who work in the same business.

Yaqui Williams, originally from Harlem, said he would play only $100. "Maybe $140. But if I play $100 and I don't win, I'm quitting." Wearing a tan sweater, a suede coat, a diamond earring, and Timberland boots, Williams smoked a Black & Mild and frowned at the salsa band. "They need to make this a hip-hop boat," he remarked.

Biancone was optimistic. "I brought a couple hundred dollars," he commented. "Hopefully I won't spend it all."

At 7:45 p.m., with Miami's skyscrapers much smaller on the horizon, a voice announced through a loudspeaker that the casino had opened. Within fifteen minutes, the second-floor and upper decks were deserted. Near a row of slot machines adjacent to the dining room, three employees in uniform polo shirts tinkered with a high-power vacuum cleaner.

"It's not working," one said worriedly. He flipped the switch unsuccessfully.

In front of them, a few inches away on the paisley carpet, was a small puddle of vomit. Its source was nowhere to be seen, having returned to the slots or the blackjack table.

When one worker inserted the plug into a different outlet, the vacuum roared to life, and the other employee quickly removed the offending puddle.

Downstairs, frenzied patrons packed the gambling area. Surrounded by the cacophony of 225 slot machines trilling, they pushed chips across green felt, scrutinized cards, and rolled dice under a haze of cigarette smoke.

Anthony Patterson, a Chicago native who came aboard with Biancone and Williams, sat on a stool next to a blinking machine, watching his friends at the blackjack table. At 8:15 p.m. he was done for the evening. "I spent $10 on a 25-cent slot machine," he said. "I won $40 and I quit. I'm not getting okey-doked." He shut his eyes for a moment as the ship swayed. "I gotta go upstairs." He spent the better part of the next two hours napping on a forest green armchair secluded in a corner of the dining room.

Zion said the rate of return on his boat is 90 cents to the dollar. "That's a customer-friendly advantage," he chirped. When asked how much the Horizon's Edgecould take in on a typical evening, he estimated: "At our maximum capacity, up in Boston, we'll have 500 people on the boat. If each one spends around $100, that's $50,000."

As the hours passed, stray gamblers, tired of playing or out of money, trickled back to the boat's upper levels. It was after midnight when the voice on the loudspeaker returned to announce gambling would soon cease. Five minutes later the slot machines, screaming with lights and music, turned silent and dark. Dazed gamers lined up to cash in their chips, then congregated in the dining room, where waitresses in neon blue halter tops served warm cookies and coffee.

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