The Albatross

St. Louis has a long and tortured history with the Admiral, home of the President Casino, but the city is about to gamble another $3 million to keep it afloat. It's a risky bet.

Apparently the name didn't worry Joseph and John Streckfus when they bought a 90-foot-wide railcar ferry in 1937 called the Albatross. Within five years, they had converted the ship into the largest cruising riverboat in the world and renamed it the Admiral.

But over the years, the boat lived up to its maiden name, first by becoming unseaworthy and then by hosting the financial collapse of one business venture after another. In a style more flamboyant than that of most St. Louis institutions, the boat escaped all potential. It embarrassed the city's mayors, enraged its own debtors and eluded the high-level profits its owners, investors and stockholders seek to this day.

Through it all, the city of St. Louis stood by, bailing bucket in hand. Most of the millions of dollars the city poured into keeping the boat afloat came after a string of bad business decisions on the various owners' parts. But these days, with the boat operating as a casino, it is the victim of mismanaged politics, urban decay and the pending approval of a second casino in South County, which, if approved, could sink the boat for good.Mike Schafersman's large frame moves through the 74 steel-plated watertight compartments that make up the hold of the S.S. Admiral with a grace earned from years of experience walking on boats. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard for more than two decades before taking this job on the city of St. Louis' only casino, which means he traverses these steely warrens so many times every day, he's oblivious to the violent sound of river water rushing just 6 inches beneath his feet.

Ordinarily, Schafersman's title would be captain. He's responsible for the boat's operations, security and housekeeping, but because the Admiral's engines were removed years ago, Schafersman's title is more grounded in the corporate world: director of safety and facilities.

Schafersman knows the boat's physical attributes as well as his own. He knows it pulls about 1,700 amps of electricity at all times, that the air-conditioning units draw more of it than the thousands of lights and the slot machines combined. He knows the thickness of the steel plate (three-eighths to a half-inch thick), the number of new decks of cards used every day (300), the number of surveillance cameras used to catch cheats (more than 400). He knows that the pockets of employees working in the money-counting rooms are sewed shut and that if a dollar bill drops onto a black-tiled floor it shows up better than it would if the tile was white.

Schafersman advances toward the stern of the 93-year-old boat through a series of hatches that separate compact rooms of pipes, wires, wetsuits, oversized tools and air-conditioning units. Because the walls of half-inch steel plate that connect in a web of monotonous gray make up four-fifths of the boat's weight, the vessel's center of gravity is extremely low. Eleven of these chambers could flood without affecting the boat's buoyancy.

The low-set weight distribution also means that when Schafersman is looking for a place to cut out tonnage, this is where he comes. "Boats are like people -- as they get older, they put on weight, and weight is not a good thing for a boat," Schafersman says, adding that every 60 tons loaded on board causes the Admiral to sink 1 inch. "You have to keep it trim so it doesn't go down further and further until water is coming up over the decks.

"You're constantly monitoring the weight that comes on or off the boat," he says rolling his eyes toward the ceiling that separates the hull from the three upper decks where 1,230 slot machines, 59 gaming tables, 18 bathrooms, one restaurant and a full house of gamblers complicate his maintenance of equilibrium.

In the past several weeks, the boat's steering gear and rudders have been removed to gain valuable empty space, but Schafersman, captain of this engineless steel husk, is quickly running out of ideas. "They're always wanting to bring additional coins on here, but that adds a lot of weight," he says. "I try to tell them to keep the coins down, because every time they bring more coins on, I have to figure out some way to lose weight somewhere else."

But as Schafersman decides which vestiges of the Admiral's structure must go, his financial counterparts in the company desperately try to figure out how to add more people, more gaming devices, more money, more weight. If they don't, and don't soon, the boat will sink, no matter what physical history Schafersman manages to scrap.

That's because the Admiral's urban location, combined with a shortage of parking and Missouri's strict regulations on gaming, condense into the kind of tonnage the boat can't handle right now.

At the end of fiscal year 2000, which ended in February, the Admiral's parent company, President Casinos Inc., reported hefty net losses on its three gambling boats, following even larger losses the year before. Then in March, the company reported to stockholders that it was unable to make interest payments on outstanding debt and was trying to sell its most profitable casino, in Davenport, Iowa, as a result.

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