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Miami cruise ship passenger "gambles" on voyage

By Thomas Brown

MIAMI (Reuters) - Nicole Gamble is the sort of person cruise ship companies must be dreading after the grounding and weekend capsizing of the Costa Concordia ocean liner off the coast of Italy.

If they operate in accordance with industry safety standards, the companies probably have little to fear - except fear itself.

But that is where people like Gamble come in. Gut reactions and worries among people considering a vacation at sea, after the disaster off Italy, pose a big potential hit to the annual earnings of cruise ship operators, analysts say.

"I'm scared," Gamble told Reuters.

"I'm taking a gamble," she added," laughing nervously as she joked about her name.

Monday marked her 40th birthday as well, she said, as her maiden voyage on a cruise ship where gambling at sea is one of the main attractions.

Gamble was the only passenger interviewed to use the "s" word - scared - as she and hundreds of others prepared to set off on Monday on a ship operated by Miami-based Carnival Corp.

But fear seemed to resonate among other travelers, as they fidgeted nervously with passports and baggage while preparing to set off on a four-day, round-trip voyage to Key West, Florida, and Cozumel, Mexico.

All said they were aware of the cruise that ended in tragedy on Friday when the Costa Concordia foundered after striking a rock. And most said they also knew about the relationship between Costa Crociere, operator of the doomed Italian ship, and Carnival, its U.S. parent.

"It's my first time and I don't like it," Gamble said.

An office manager for an Atlanta-based construction company, she was traveling with three companions. But she was alone in openly admitting to a sense of fear after the weekend accident involving one of the biggest passenger vessels ever to be wrecked.

"This is some birthday, huh?" she asked with a wince.

"Just to see something like that," she said. "That hasn't happened since the Titanic."

'NOT THE SAME DRIVER'

Shares in Carnival plunged 18 percent in European trading on Monday, after the company said its full-year earnings would take a $90 million hit from the accident and added that it anticipated further costs to the business.

But the accident could have a bigger impact if cut-rate cruises like Carnival's three-night jaunt down to Cozumel lose some of their allure due to safety concerns.

The going rate for the trip is about $200 before taxes.

Many passengers at dockside were putting on a brave face on Monday as they prepared to board the 10-deck, 855-foot-long (260 meter) Imagination for their sea cruise, even as some talked about fate and risks to their own longevity.

Built in Helsinki, Finland, in 1995, the ship has a capacity for 2,052 passengers and 920 crew members.

"As long as it's not the same driver, we'll be alright," said Travis Denning, a 35-year-old police officer from Westchester County, New York.

"I figure if my number's up, my number's up," said Kevin Fogarty, 54, a self-employed Virginia businessman. "But I'm a good swimmer," he added.

"Carnival ain't got nothing to do with it. If it's time to go, it's time to go," said Vickie Battle, 59, a secretary at Atlanta's Emory University Hospital.

"It was a bad maneuver by the captain," said Dennis Delgado, a 47-year-old commercial airline pilot from Peru who said he had no misgivings about clambering aboard the Imagination with 18 family members for a cruise they had been planning for months.

"It was human error, not an error of the cruise ships," he added.

Dawn Marshman, 37, marketing director for a music industry magazine in Cleveland, was somewhat less gung-ho, however.

"I might have been hesitant to book if I had been planning it right now," she said, noting she had bought the cruise tickets for herself and a friend's birthday several months ago.

"A friend kept saying before I left that 'You'd better wear your life-jacket the entire time,'" she added.

"It was a joke ... But when you book far in advance, what are you going to do?"

(Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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