Bets are off for casino ship and forlorn crew stranded in Hong Kong amid gambling slump

A Chinese crew member passes time by playing a game inside the banquet room of the New Imperial Star casino cruiser at Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, on April 15, 2016.
A Chinese crew member passes time by playing a game inside the banquet room of the New Imperial Star casino cruiser at Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, on April 15, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Captain Valerie Lyzhyn and his 45 crew are stranded in Hong Kong, big losers in a gambling slump triggered by a Chinese crackdown on corruption that has scared off the high-rollers.

Mr Lyzhyn, 62, a Russian-born Ukrainian and veteran seaman, and his colleagues, refuse to leave their 140m casino cruiser the New Imperial Star until they get the six months of pay they say they are owed.

Hong Kong's Marine Department has impounded the ship due to what it called "serious deficiencies" found during an inspection.

Rations are running low, the ship's owners can't be reached and the cobalt blue felt covering the 16 baccarat tables is gathering dust.

"There's one egg per crew member per day," Capt Lyzhyn told Reuters onboard the ship, which is moored a short barge ride away from a bustling port in eastern Hong Kong.

Breakfast was particularly miserable: "No sausages, no bacon, no milk, nothing."

Hong Kong's casino cruises flourished alongside the world's biggest gambling hub of Macau, across the mouth of the Pearl River from Hong Kong, until 2014.

It was then that Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a wide-reaching anti-graft campaign, snaring officials and powerful businessmen who had used Macau as a cash playground.

The gamblers have been steering clear. "Really, business has gone down," Capt Lyzhyn said, dressed in a tan uniform with gold and black lapels.

"One year ago we had 200 passengers, before we stopped operating we had only 50."

Capt Lyzhyn said the ship was detained in October last year after the owners failed to pay maintenance fees and as a result, it did not pass its inspections.

The crew is waiting to be paid salaries totaling US$400,000, he said.

He said he did not know who the ship's owners were but it was managed by a company called Sky Wheel Limited.

Phone numbers for Sky Wheel did not work while Sea Hawk Asia, the ship's previous manager, said it was not able to comment on the situation.

Prior to 2014, there were 12 casino ships operating out of Hong Kong but Lyzhyn said that number has plunged to four.

The cruises typically pick up passengers at the teeming Tsim Sha Tsui pier in Hong Kong's Kowloon district and set sail at 8 p.m. for international waters, returning to Hong Kong 12 hours later, after a night of gambling.

The boats are mostly owned by Macau junket companies which make use of convoluted ownership structures with multiple investors.

On the New Imperial Star, flies buzz around the kitschy chandeliers and the crew of 20 Ukrainians, 18 from Myanmar and 8 Chinese can only wait. They may be there a while yet.

Capt Lyzhyn said he hoped the Hong Kong authorities would formally impound the ship in two weeks and then a legal process would start which he hoped would end, after a few months, with him and his crew being paid.