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Aug. 6, 2000 | Uncharted Waters

The Canaveral Star is not exactly a strip club, and it is not exactly the no-sex playground its young North Miami Beach owner asserts that it is.

Whatever the cruise ship is - many of the men who paid to cavort with the women last week presumed it is the world's first floating bordello - the Port Canaveral Authority is attempting to evict it.

Port officials want no part of it.

The 130-foot Canaveral Star, which runs cruises organized by the Buoy Club, is so popular - sometimes drawing as many as 200 men - that its backers say they will soon add other "adult nude entertainment" cruise ships, one of which almost certainly will be based in South Florida. Men pay $50 and women pay $75 to board the ship. Everything else is extra.

The 51/2-hour cruise out of Port Canaveral goes beyond the three-mile limit and, according to the boat's owners, outside the jurisdiction of Florida law.

A lawyer for the boat says that rules aboard ship do not allow prostitution. "There is no sex" says Ira Mihlstin, 31, who dreamed up the cruises 18 months ago.

On a recent Friday night, however, several patrons said they paid more than $200 each for a sex act in VIP areas they rented for $300 per hour and up. One woman inviting patrons to descend below said, "I have never met a man yet who left the boat unhappy." Because the Canaveral Star flies the U.S. flag, it is subject to U.S. law, no matter where it sails, said Robert Jarvis, an admiralty law professor at Nova Southeastern University. But Jarvis said he does not remember the feds ever prosecuting anyone for sex at sea.

A federal prosecutor might consider sending in U. S. marshals to "literally arrest the ship" while it is in port, arguing "that it is being used in the furtherance of a crime, " Jarvis said. Another possible scenario: prosecution under the White Slavery Act, 19th Century legislation designed to stamp out prostitution.

"We are not a bordello, " says Mihlstin, the brains behind the enterprise that he named the Buoy Club. "You can do a lap dance, and that's it." Clients cannot even touch the women, he said. The Buoy Club is all about luxury, quality and "pampering."

Mihlstin changed his comments after being told a Herald reporter on board a July 28 cruise witnessed some of the men - included a physician, an insurance agent, a car salesman and florist - running their hands liberally over every inch of the nude table dancers they hired, in full view of other clients.

"OK, " he said, "there is touching if the man and the woman agree." He insisted again there is no sex. When told that several male clients told a reporter they paid for a sex act, he said, "nine out of 10 times the girl doesn't do anything."

Some men said they paid $200 to sit behind curtains on the deck below in what is called the "VIP Lounge" for more private contact. Others boasted of spending much more - $150 to $300 paid to the girl and $300 and up paid to the club for a stateroom with a bed and a door.

Mihlstin said his staff checks carefully for illegal activity. He said the four staterooms do not have doors, but a reporter witnessed otherwise. He said previously the rooms were available to anyone. On Thursday, he said the rooms are only available to "private VIP club members who buy a $5,000 membership."

Women spotted offering sex, he said, are detained in the wheelhouse during the voyage and told not to come back. But women said the staff only frowns on sexual activity taking place outside of the staterooms and VIP area.

Mihlstin doesn't worry about his legal troubles, which appear to be mounting. On Friday, the Seminole County Sheriff's office arrested an assistant manager for the Buoy Club, on charges of profiting from prostitution in connection with a raid on a night club, Sassy Merlot's in Maitland.

While his lawyers battle Port Canaveral officials, Mihlstin says his plans include expanding to Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades or the Port of Miami-Dade. They, too, soon may face this dilemma: How do you square the image of a cruise ship where the women get naked with the family fun of a ship operated by Disney or Carnival? How would Port Everglades feel about playing host to the Buoy Club?

"While it behooves us to make certain any operator we provide services for meets all the laws for its operation, Port Everglades is not in the business of dictating morality, " said Jim Lida, assistant director of cruise marketing at Port Everglades.

Mihlstin, who says he worked for adult clubs in South Florida - although he won't say which - brainstormed the Buoy Club with several friends 18 months ago.

He said he promoted the weekly Thursday, Friday and Saturday night cruises heavily in Orlando before the Canaveral Star made its maiden voyage June 5.

The ship has a capacity of 355. On a recent night, 27 men and 27 women came board. The night before, the cruise drew 220 men and about 20 women.

The fast-talking entrepreneur says his plan was to "take it away from the schools, take it away from the churches and put it out at sea." By "it" Mihlstin said he means "adult nude entertainment."

Opposition on the part of Port Canaveral began as soon as word got out about the Canaveral Star's trips beyond the three-mile limit. Port officials say they had been told by the club that the ship was offering dinner cruises.

Central Florida talk radio stations, some of which did broadcasts from the boat, got into the act. Men looking for commercial sex on Web pages began gossiping.

The Buoy Club was not the kind of family fun image the port - home to seven giant cruise ships run by Disney, Royal Caribbean and Carnival - promotes. Last year, Port Canaveral replaced Fort Lauderdale as the second-busiest cruise port in the world after Miami, according to port officials there, who expect 3 million passengers this year. In mid-June, Port Commission Chairman Joe Mathenay said the Canaveral Star was giving the port a bad reputation.

Now, everyone's suing.

The Port Authority told New Port Marina, where the Canaveral Star ties up, to evict the ship or face losing the marina's lease. New Port Marina sued the ship's backers seeking an eviction. The Buoy Club is suing officials at the Port Authority for not signing its liquor license application.

Orlando attorney Richard Wilson, who is representing the backers, said he has until Tuesday to file a response to the eviction suit.

Mihlstin said he is not worried.

"I don't see the Port Authority as a problem, " he said. "They are just a speed bump you cross over. We are accelerating at such a rapid pace we are not concerned about them." Definitely on track, however, he said, are cruises for women, featuring men.

They will start in mid-August, he said.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook. Professional women. Management women. Mothers. They want entertainment."