GLOUCESTER, Mass. -- Massachusetts law is clear when it comes to casino gambling: It's prohibited.
And yet, smack in the middle of this historic harbor -- where boats are judged by how wave-beaten they are and men are judged by how many pounds of fish they haul to shore -- sits the Vegas Express. It's a flashy-looking creature with carpeting, a dance floor and "Wacky Winner" and "777 Blazing" slot machines.
Here is one casino industry answer to gambling restrictions: a floating casino. These boats carry blackjack tables, slots and gamblers with trusty sea legs three miles into international waters, where the casino companies believe their recreation is not subject to state jurisdiction.
Casino boats first arrived in Massachusetts last year and have brought a curious touch of Las Vegas to Gloucester, a 376-year-old fishing community where three of the boats dock. Gloucester bills itself as "America's oldest seaport" and is more notably home to the rusty vessels that hunt the seas for flounder, cod and haddock.
"I'd rather see a fish-processing plant here," said Vito Calomo, executive director of the Gloucester Fisheries Commission, as he stood on a dock staring at the Southern Elegance, a casino boat. "Gamblers, they go to the Indian reservations. I don't like it in my back yard. It's not fishing. And I'm for fishing."
"Cruises to nowhere" for gamblers began operating in Florida and have spread to South Carolina, Texas, Georgia, New York and now Massachusetts. The door opened for them in 1992, when a federal law allowing foreign ships to operate casinos was amended to allow U.S.-registered ships to have on-board gambling as well -- so long as they were in international waters.
The proliferation of these smaller casino boats has caught the interest of lawmakers up and down the East Coast. Many are dumbfounded that these vessels with flowing alcohol, mirrored walls and craps tables can park at their ports with impunity -- as long as the games don't begin until the boat chugs sufficiently offshore.
"Some states may want it and some may not, but let's fight it out in the state legislatures," said U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican. Wolf has introduced a bill that would amend the law so states would have to approve the industry before it arrives. "If something isn't done," he said, "you'll have cruises to nowhere coming out of Ocean City."
Gaming opponents in Maryland's Ocean City and other coastal resorts in the mid-Atlantic may have less to worry about than communities in New England. In July, a federal appeals court with jurisdiction over Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas ruled that a South Carolina law barring casinos pre-empted the federal law that allows the cruises.
Catherine Orleman, an assistant attorney general in Maryland and counsel for the Maryland Port Authority, said that nod to state gambling laws should hold for the region.
"We are comfortable that in this circuit, that is the law now," she said. Orleman added that the industry could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gloucester was not exactly up in arms in July 1998 when the 350-passenger Vegas Express sailed on its maiden voyage. Leisure Time Casinos and Resorts -- the Georgia outfit that owns the boat -- skillfully developed a cordial relationship with the community, sponsoring the local symphony and a seafood festival and donating money to buy shoes for the Gloucester High School football team.
The company pays a $3-per-person federal gambling tax and pays state sales tax on all on-board sales -- that is, until the boat crosses the three-mile line when it can sell tax-free. According to spokesman Jay Johnson, Leisure Time hired 86 percent of its 126 employees from the local community.
'Let a community decide'
Even Gloucester Mayor Bruce H. Tobey, an outspoken opponent of gambling, said he could swallow one casino boat if it was operated tastefully. It was when two other outfits moved into Gloucester that Tobey and many other residents became nervous they were becoming a magnet. The town and state, he said, should have some regulatory power over the gambling excursions.
"Just let a community decide for themselves what it wants to be," Tobey said. "We're a competent city of 30,000, and we'll figure it out. This is a seaport. You've got that harbor, and there's a strong emotional tie to the harbor. It's about fishing, cargo, people-moving and recreational boating, and all that has co-existed. This just brings a whole new slant to it."
The Vegas Express sails from a dock beside a rusty 105-foot trawler that makes for an odd fit with the Mercedes and Lexus luxury cars parked outside the casino boat's loading area. A billboard plastered with photos of gamblers in tuxedos and cocktail dresses proclaims Leisure Time "The Best Game in Town." The sign stands on Main Street near the Crow's Nest, a hangout for local fishermen who discuss how to resuscitate their struggling industry over Budweisers and lobster rolls.
Residents seem divided over the boats.
"It doesn't bother me -- and if you talk to four more people, two will be for it and two against," said George Tulla, 73, a lifelong resident and former mailman.
In Lynn, a larger city closer to Boston, there has been little opposition to the Midnight Gambler, another casino cruiser. Whereas Gloucester's boats pass in and out of a historic harbor, the Midnight Gambler's dock is in a weedy shipyard hidden from town by industrial parks.
Lester Bullock, president of the Day Cruise Association, an umbrella industry group, said the 1992 law simply gave U.S.-flag ships the same rights as foreign-flag ships, which were taking gamblers out to sea to play off Florida's coastline since the mid-1980s. He said the industry employs more than 4,000 people and contributes more than $700 million a year to local communities. And, he added, floating casinos are safer venues for the potential addict.
"We're forcing people to stop playing," Bullock said. "You can't sit on our ships for three days like you can in Atlantic City, Vegas or Biloxi. So we're not taking people's rent checks. It's entertainment. It's like going to the movies. When you go to the movies now, you can spend $40 or $50 with the popcorn and soda. Here, you're spending $40 or $50 on slots."
The Vegas Express makes two five-hour cruises a day out of Gloucester. Patrons can board for an admission fee of $20, and another $10 puts them at a buffet on the lower deck that serves shrimp, Cajun chicken, pasta and cheesecake.
One recent evening, as the boat sailed toward the three-mile line, the slot machines were dormant. Three bachelorette parties were passing the time dancing to Barry Manilow on an outdoor deck. But more serious gamblers had staked out their machines and were impatiently waving $5 bills, waiting for the machines to light up so they could feed them.
Most on board -- such as Maryanna Getchell, a 35-year-old homemaker from Somerville, Mass. -- are from the area and call the boat a close alternative to traveling to one of two Indian-run casinos in Connecticut.
Getchell brought $300 with her and ended up losing much of it on slots.
Some didn't enjoy their first cruise. Patricia Hall, 50, a registered nurse from Natick, Mass., said she is going to Connecticut next time.
"The boat's too rocky and smelly," she said.
Leisure Time is already scoping the East Coast for a port to begin operating a second boat. Gloucester was a perfect candidate, company officials said, because its harbor is a quick three miles from international waters. Boston Harbor, for example, is farther inland, and it would take several hours to reach the all-important line.
But the future of casino boats in states that outlaw gambling is uncertain as opponents are beginning to win victories, in addition to the federal court decision in July.
Gloucester has stalled operation of one boat, the Southern Elegance, by passing a zoning ordinance that limits the boats to one part of the harbor. The matter is now in court.
In Cape Cod, a U.S. District Court sided with local officials who wanted to prevent Leisure Time from operating its second boat there until they studied the impact of gambling more closely.
Florida, home to about 30 small casino boats, recently prohibited the vessels from tying to docks leased from the state, a move that will eventually affect about half the boats. Tobey, the Gloucester mayor, said his town is facing a harsh reality that with fishing sputtering, it must diversify its industries. Tourism is on the rise. The Moby Duck boat -- "It's a whale of a ride!" -- passes through the fishing town with dozens of sightseers several times a day.
But with the casinos, the mayor said he sees the potential for excess. He was furious when one casino company suggested dressing its crew in costumes.
"This has been a place that has always been authentic," Tobey said. "You never saw actors pretending to be fishermen. You saw fishermen."