The Escapade is a three-story casino cruise ship built in Florida in 1978 and once owned by Tradewinds. The vessel is 175-feet long and weighs over 1,300 tons. Over the years, the cruise ship has undergone almost a dozen name changes. The lower levels of the vessel are reserved for gambling, and the top-level featured an open deck for sightseeing, as well as a restaurant. The Escapade had dozens of gaming tables, and 200 poker machines are spread out across 6,000 square feet.
Casino cruise ships offer passengers a unique opportunity to gamble at sea, where they are free of any federal regulations. According to U.S. law, passengers can legally gamble once they are three nautical miles from shore. The casinos must remain closed until the ship is out past the three-mile limit.
In the early 2000s, the vessel operated in the Gulf of Mexico until a previous operator was shut down for routinely allowing passengers to gamble illegally in state waters. The ship was raided by law enforcement after Homeland Security was alerted to claims of near-shore gambling. The previous owners pled guilty to charges of illegal gambling.
The Escapade was sold to a new owner several years ago. However, delays prevented the boat from operating. Tradewinds, the cruise ship’s operating company, offered an incentive of a free five-hour cruise to garner more attention for its inaugural trip.
Around midnight during its inaugural cruise, the Escapade ran aground on a sandbar two miles offshore. After coming to a jolting halt, the vessel was stranded. The Coast Guard attempted to tow the ship, but the tow lines snapped. Due to low tide, they were unable to move the 600-ton ship. The Coast Guard could only reach passengers by helicopter, so they decided to wait until morning during high tide before extracting the stranded passengers and crew.
By noon the next day, a majority of the passengers and crew were evacuated. Everyone was off the ship by 6:00 PM. The cruise ship was able to dislodge itself without the weight of the passengers during high tide. After an inspection for leaks by the Coast Guard, the Escapade made it safely back to the marina. An investigation by the Coast Guard revealed passengers were gambling illegally throughout the night. The operating company suspended the Captain with pay until an internal investigation was complete.
A week after the ship ran aground, the company’s Vice President stated their internal investigation found no wrongdoing by the Captain. The Vice President said the crew gave out decks of playing cards to keep guests entertained and they were also allowed to sit at the tables, but the games were not operational. Passengers that were interviewed by the Coast Guard reported they were allowed to gamble for hours after becoming stuck. One passenger said the slot machines were not turned off until 4:00 AM. Regardless of the conflicting stories, the Coast Guard allowed the cruise ship to keep its certification of inspection and keep operating.
A year after the first incident, the casino cruise ship ran aground again. This time it was not immediately reported to the Coast Guard. The crew said they briefly scrapped the bottom and never stopped. Passengers reported that they were stranded for roughly two hours before the Escapade was able to free itself. The crew was unsure if they needed to contact authorities since they were not in an emergency. After the incident, the Coast Guard removed the certificate of inspection from the vessel, which means it cannot operate with passengers.
A meeting with the owners and the Coast Guard determined there was no set a date for the certificate to be reinstated. The owners ultimately decided to list the ship for sale for $4 million several years ago. Without a buyer, the vessel remained moored. The Coast Guard ordered the owner to move the ship farther south in 2016 to avoid Hurricane Matthew. A lack of maintenance has left the vessel in rough shape due to years of neglect. Today, the Escapade remains moored while plans for a renovation are in the works.