ST. JOHN'S PASS VILLAGE, Fla., Sept. 4 (UPI) -- It's a misty gray afternoon on Tampa Bay, and I'm sitting on a high narrow cockeyed boardwalk that juts out over the water like the parapet of a Scottish castle. Edward Hopper should paint this: lazy pelicans flapping through a squall, python wallets and toy lighthouses in the window of an empty shop, dozens of purple and turquoise Wave Runners lined up in lonely ranks.
If you could film "Wuthering Heights" on a beach, this is where you'd do it. A drawbridge rises at the end of the pass, and in lumbers the gambling ship Stardancer, inching sidewise up to the tiny dock as its passengers -- all 23 of them -- bunch toward the first deck exit while the lounge musicians finish their final set.
It's humid and stormy and yet the air seems perfectly still, like the lull before a tornado. It's a day good for drinking under the thatched-hut bars and staring out to sea at the breaching dolphins and very little else. It's one of those days when the chirruping sea birds sound so distant and isolated that it starts to creep you out.
"We're kind of between seasons here," says Les Gross, the affable director of sales and marketing, as we wait for the captain's permission to go aboard. "School starts so early these days. The tourists leave by mid-August."
As gambling ships go, the Stardancer is pretty much the end of the line. They don't get much smaller or narrower -- capacity is listed as a wildly optimistic 439 people -- and the ceilings are so low that you feel like you're navigating through the interior of the Space Shuttle. The poker room is the tiniest in the world -- one table, with just enough space left over for a liquor cabinet. The sports book has one TV screen. When I mention the Stardancer to a competitor, he says, "Oh, you mean the old Europa Sky? They call that boat the Vomit Comet."
I loved it, of course. The Stardancer is one of the last ships left over from the wild and crazy days of cruises-to-Nowhere -- late 1980s and early 1990s -- when the vessels flew foreign flags and stayed one jump ahead of the law. Thanks to a Congressional amendment to the Johnson Act in 1992, the business stabilized a bit, and now there are about 40 more or less permanent gambling ships sailing from Texas, South Carolina, New York, Massachusetts, and, of course, Florida, the world capital of the gambling-ship business.
Not that the Stardancer hasn't had its problems. Small gambling ships are under constant pressure from environmental regulators, the Coast Guard and local cops who occasionally try to enforce old laws against possession of "gambling paraphernalia." Stardancer Cruises also operates ships in Myrtle Beach, S.C., as well as the Florida ports of Port Richey, Tarpon Springs and Fernandina Beach. And besides the usual local political battles, the company's assets were frozen by the FBI earlier this year after one of the principal investors was arrested in Ohio for embezzlement. (Mark Steven Miller, former chief executive officer of Oakwood Deposit Bank near Toledo, Ohio, is charged with stealing $40 million from his bank and diverting much of it to Stardancer.)
Hubbard's Marina, where the Stardancer docks, is not really built for gambling ships. The great thing about the 1992 Congressional amendment is that it allowed ships to dock at places that weren't really ports, so they could be closer to the three-mile international limit. (The Stardancer still requires an hour to get out to the legal waters, but that's much better than the three hours it used to take from the Port of Tampa.)
The short cruise time is the main reason the Stardancer ended up in the down-at-the-heels tourist town of Madeira Beach, lined with time-share condos, motels that are unchanged since the 1960s, and small excursion boats like the "Royal Conquest Pirate Cruise," during which kids don paper pirate hats and engage in water-gun battles, treasure hunts and limbo contests.
The "downtown" part of Madeira Beach suffered a devastating fire three years ago, but has been rebuilt as a shopping area specializing in the usual nautical gewgaws and Cracker-Barrel-type knick-knacks found in vacation spots everywhere, with a smattering of T-shirt and swimwear shops featuring fashions suitable for emerging from a burning building.
Stardancer bought its current vessel for $5.2 million from Europa Sea Cruises in August 2000 after Europa abandoned the gambling-boat business entirely and devoted itself to building a destination gambling resort in Diamondhead, Miss. One reason Europa got out of the market is that ships had gotten bigger and fancier, especially on the west coast of Florida, where the humongous Sterling Casino sails from Port Canaveral every day. The SunCruz line also has a ship sailing from St. John's Pass, but from the other side of the drawbridge, in the beach town of Treasure Island.
What all this means is that a small boat like Stardancer relies almost entirely on local retirees and word of mouth. There are virtually no signs directing you to the marina, which is a good half hour from downtown St. Petersburg, and the only advertising the ship does is in the phone book and on pizza boxes. With competing SunCruz starting to dominate the market, Sundancer is poised to start running buses and concentrating on weekend group sales to build up the number of passengers -- but the economics are tough.
Gaming experts say that most small ships average only about $85 per passenger on day cruises, with the number going up to perhaps $130 on weekends, so trips with 23 aboard are obviously not making much of a dent in that $5.2 million investment. After a while, you start to wonder just how tight they're setting those slot-machine payouts. (Since the boats are unregulated, they don't have to report their percentages.)
Having said all that, I would still recommend the Stardancer, if for nothing more than nostalgia value. This is the same type of small gambling boat they used in Mississippi in the early 1990s, and if you get it cranking, it can be a very intense gambling atmosphere, especially if the seas are swelling and the players are stumbling more than usual. (I've always wondered how they keep the roulette wheel level and the craps players from getting perturbed when the dice fly in nine different directions before coming to a stop.)
The ship has three decks, with all the table games on the second deck, the first deck devoted to a 65-seat dining area and tiny lounge, and the third open-air deck mostly used for relaxing at the bar. They do have a VIP Room for their better players, but they don't really restrict access to it. It's just a couple of blackjack tables with high betting minimums, a small bar, and a cozier atmosphere.
Of course, the whole boat is cozy. You will get to know your neighbors on these five-and-a-half-hour cruises, which cost $10 to board and $10 for the buffet, although it's easy to find free coupons and they'll honor the coupons of any other gambling ship. Drinks are free, but only while the gambling is in progress. The cash bar kicks in during the hour out and the hour back, as Stardancer hits its top speed of ... 11 knots.
There's a small parking facility next to the St. John's Pass Village Boardwalk, and there are several Margaritaville-type seafood restaurants where you can down a few Gulf oysters and knock back some lagers when you get tired of looking at carved walri in the gift shops.
"It's a tourist trap," says Les Gross, who runs things at St. John's Pass for Stardancer CEO Sam Gray Jr. "But whenever we have friends from out of town, that's where we go."
Gross grew up in Utica, New York, where he played on the football team with fellow casino manager Steve Wynn. Wynn is currently building the biggest resort in the history of Las Vegas, called Le Reve, while Gross is trying to figure out how to squeeze a few extra nickels out of the weekenders from Tampa on one of the tiniest gaming floors in the world. It would help if he could get a little more coverage in the local paper, the Beach Beacon, but it's a fast news week. On the front page is a picture of a guy holding up a 25-pound blackfin tuna. They have priorities in Madeira Beach.
Have another margarita.
Hubbard's Marina, St. John's Pass Village, Fla.
Theme: Sawdust Joint on Water
Opened: 2000 (sailed previously as the Europa Sky)
Total investment: $5.2 million
Known for: Quaintness
Marketing niche: Locals, retirees.
Gambler's Intensity: Medium
Cocktail speed: Rapido
Rare games: Oasis Stud.
Surrounding area: The ship docks on a little tourist peninsula full of time-share condos and small motels, with Madeira Beach to the south and Treasure Island to the north.
Web site: none
Overall rating: 65
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $20 after some 25-cent "Triple 7" action: total to date +$185
(e-mail Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.)