"Ladies and gentlemen, the casino is now open!" the man on the loudspeaker says. Seconds later, dice are flying, slots are spinning and NFL fans are plunking down money in time for kickoff.
It's early Sunday afternoon on the high seas, three miles east of Riviera Beach and the Black Diamond Casino Cruise is in action. It's the only one-day gambling ship operating out of South Florida.
It didn't use to be that way. Before the Seminole Tribe of Florida built its gambling empire, and back when horse tracks, dog tracks and jai-alai frontons had pari-mutuels as their core business, single-day cruises were the quickest avenue to slots, blackjack and other depravities.
Now, Black Diamond COO Steve Flood, president Jonathan Greene and other former managers from the defunct Palm Beach Princess gambling ship are trying to keep offshore casinos afloat with a new venture, even as land-based gambling continues to grow in South Florida. Flood cites the advantages: a legal sports book, live craps and a certain familiarity among staff and patrons, most of them from Palm Beach County.
"We're just a small fish in the sea, but you can argue we're the Cheers of the ocean, because everyone knows your name here," says Flood, who uses the terms "coastal gaming" and "locals casino" in almost every conversation.
My history with one-day cruises goes back to 1988, when to celebrate my 30th birthday, I slapped a sign-up sheet on the company bulletin board for a one-day bacchanalia. About 40 of my closest friends hopped aboard the Discovery for a day of drinking, gambling and trivia. (My current boss won a bottle of Champagne because she knew John Crapper invented the toilet.) One-day getaways with out-of-towners and family followed.
Then, about a decade ago, the Seminoles got serious, Broward voters approved slots, and the SunCruz (2007), the SeaEscape (2008), the Palm Beach Princess (early 2010) and the Discovery (2011) all saw their business sink.
Flood and his partners are trying to revive off-shore gaming. They retooled the old SunCruz, pumped in almost $4 million and set off on their maiden voyage this past fall. They gutted about 95 percent of the ship's electrical cabling, rebuilt the galley areas, bars and casino cages, and added new slot machines and table games. They also reconfigured the dining room and installed new bathrooms and lighting.
"We could have gone with Band-Aids, but we decided to do it right," Flood says.
In early December, Flood mailed out 14,000 coupons to former patrons of the Palm Beach Princess. He says capacity is limited to 500, though the ship holds a couple of hundred more.
I boarded the Black Diamond on a recent Sunday. Fueled by brunch — which included eggs, French toast, fruit, pork loin and salmon — my gambling day started with a bet in the sports book. The Dolphins didn't play until 4:15 p.m., and the cruise ended at 5, so the only option was to bet the 1 p.m. games. I put $20 (plus a $2 vig) on the Chicago Bears, who were one-point favorites over the Minnesota Vikings.
The sports book isn't what you'd see in Las Vegas. Three staffers in football jerseys worked the counter, with the NFL lines next to them written on a dry-erase board. But eight flat-screen TVs near a bar and the craps and blackjack tables gave the area the feel of a man cave.
"It's the sports book that gets me on this ship," says Ron Williams, of West Palm Beach, as he diverts his gaze for only a minute from the screen. "No place else can I bet on the games."
Six minutes into the game, my bet was pretty much gone. The Vikings were leading 14-0.
So I sat down at the blackjack table ($10 minimum) and got in about 45 minutes at a full table. The players apparently knew each other — most referred to Palm Beach Princess experiences — and I could have sat there longer, had I not all but run through my $100. With $30 left, it was on to roulette, where I broke even after playing about 30 minutes.
The slots included a lot of older games — Texas Tea, Lucky Lemons and Stinkin' Rich — partially because the ship's low ceilings make some new games and their oversize displays an impossible fit. But the existing slots operated just fine, and I was able to turn Lucky Lemons into green bills, winning $17. Finally, a win! But I gave $6 back at video poker.
There was no live Texas hold 'em poker that day. While they'll deal a game if enough players are interested, the two tables set aside for poker likely will remain empty. Regular players know there's better action at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and the Broward venues.
I'm not much of a craps player, but I make friends with Bob Barshay of Delray Beach, who says he's been comped at casinos all over the country. He starts each roll with an enthusiastic "Here we goooo!" and says the Black Diamond is his easy craps fix — though he stops short of being overly complimentary.
"I enjoy craps, but there's nothing like a real, live casino," he says.
The Vikings held off the Bears, 21-14, just as the ship returned to U.S. waters. At least one patron had to cajole the sports book to cash his ticket as the ship was on the edge of returning from international waters. That's a risk of the sports book: If the game runs a little late, you have only 30 days to hop back aboard the ship to collect. Considering my money was on the Bears, I faced no such problem.
As we exited the ship, I did the math: sports book (minus $22), blackjack (minus $70), slots (plus $17) and video poker (minus $6). An $81 loss.
I've done worse.