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Cruisin' for a Bruisin'

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Those who were expecting a Vegas- or Atlantic City-like experience knew that they'd made a mistake. They would have been much better off in Mississippi, where state legislators legalized gambling eight years ago. The biggest reasons for legalization, according to Warren Strain, a spokesperson for the Mississippi Gaming Commission, were the following: 1) to regulate the industry; 2) to reduce the threat of organized crime; and 3) to attract extra tax revenue, which amounted to $240 million from casino boats alone in 1997.

One benefit, in particular, would interest SunCruz's seasick passengers. When Mississippi went legal, the casino boats no longer needed to sail into international waters. So they remained docked, and eventually the dockside ships were converted into Vegas-like casinos. In contrast to SunCruz V's low ceilings, dim lighting, and one-man Calypso band, Mississippi's casinos offer bright neon lights, high ceilings, cascading waterfalls, bigtime entertainment and, of course, a view of calm waters. There's also not a seasickness bag in sight.

Legalized gambling in Florida, however, has proven to be a tough sell. Voters have rejected the idea in three separate elections over the past twenty years. In just eight years, meanwhile, Florida's cruise-to-nowhere industry has grown from five ships to twenty-seven. With seven ships in its fleet, SunCruz is the largest casino-boat company in Florida and expects to add three more vessels by the end of the year. Because SunCruz is privately owned, it is not legally required to report its annual income. Nor was Karen willing to reveal that information. But Florida's one publicly owned casino-boat outfit, Europa Cruise Corp., has three boats and reported $21 million in income in 1997 but paid no tax at the state or local level.

"Theoretically," Strain observes, "if Florida were set up like Mississippi, you'd be looking at hundreds of millions of dollars to the state."

If Florida were set up like Mississippi, Ann Rotman probably wouldn't have a SunCruz story to tell.

In March 1997 the Davie resident invited 70 guests to board the SunCruz V in Hollywood and help celebrate her birthday. When the guests arrived, a few noticed a small sign indicating that rough seas may be ahead. But the skies were clear, and the Intracoastal appeared calm. Besides, the guests were there to party, and in the backs of their minds they figured that any good captain would keep his passengers out of danger.

They were wrong.
As soon as the boat hit the ocean, it began to rock and shake. Although there was no storm, waves crashed against the boat and strong gusts of wind swept across the top deck. As the boat swayed, chairs slid across the floor, and guests stumbled and fell. Those who couldn't even stand were slumped facedown on blackjack tables. Even some dealers lay sprawled on the floor. Hardly anyone was gambling.

"I looked at my husband's cousin, and he says, 'I never get sick. I love boats,'" Rotman recalls. "And as he said it, his face got whiter and whiter, and then he got sick."

As more guests became ill, some asked the crew if the boat could return to shore early.

Instead of turning the ship around, the crew brought out cots for the elderly patrons. Panic soon set in, and passengers, some groaning and screaming, fought each other for a stable pole or piece of the bar to grab onto.

"Tables were flying overboard, and some of the patrons were hysterical," recalls Sharon Morrison, who was a SunCruz waitress at the time. "There definitely was an uprising. Someone was even going to jump overboard. Some fights were starting to break out because people were afraid."

One woman, Mona Lee Prieto, called the Coast Guard on her cellular phone for assistance. But a crew member grabbed the phone, smashed it into bits, and detained her and her boyfriend. Another SunCruz employee slammed handcuffs on a nearby table repeatedly and threatened to lock the couple up if they didn't behave. (Prieto and her boyfriend later sued SunCruz, which settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.)

"If you want to get down to it," Morrison says, "that boat should never have gone out, because people could have been injured. It was very, very rough."

Speaking on behalf of SunCruz, Karen explains that the boat captain was in fact trying to turn back when the panic turned into hysteria. "As I recall, [Prieto] was restrained because chaos started to break out," he says. "People got ill because of motion sickness and forced the situation on the marine crew."

Witnesses, however, say the boat captain had no intention of heading in until Prieto called the Coast Guard.

"You're sick as a dog, and you're being held captive on this thing, just for money," says Joel Taubman, a witness.

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Michael Freedman

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