The air was already hot and thick with humidity that summer morning in 1997. It was the ship’s launch day. My tangerine silk dress clung to my legs, and my hairdo began to unravel into a flat, scraggly mess. Great. I still had not acclimated to Connecticut summers. Not only did I fail to dress correctly for the heat index, I still hadn’t found styling products that worked for me. Rather than looking presentable for this special occasion, I felt more like a sweaty poodle.
I joined the crowd seated on the metal bleachers while a team of suits assembled to finalize the morning’s press conference agenda. We were about to formally present and Christen the first high speed passenger ferry vessel ever built, owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequots. There were at least three hundred of us gathered together for the event. We sat in the shadow of the expansive New London Bridge, right along the shoreline against the Thames River’s edge. Long ago, it was called Pequot River due to our tribe’s original dominance of the shoreline hunting, fishing and trading territories. That all changed after the English arrived. They freely took control of the territory, and the land at the south bank of the mouth of the river became New London, and the river was renamed Thames.
Behind the bleachers off to one side stood a large white reception tent. Workers quickly arranged dozens of small round tables and folding chairs as the catering staff rushed to complete their finishing touches on a variety of gourmet offerings, elegantly displayed inside the polished silver chafing dishes set on long, white linen-covered tables.
Outside, the press conference was about to begin. The crowd began to hush just enough to be able to hear the gentle sounds of the river splashing along the shore. Several business leaders and political dignitaries sat behind a podium on the platform in front of the crowd. Behind them, cradled in the heavy straps of an enormous boat-hauler ready for its initial launch, was Sassacus.
The vessel Sassacus was named after a beloved seventeenth-century Pequot chief, a very close relative of the nearby Mohegan tribe patriarch, Uncas. Sassacus’s gleaming white hull was adorned with shimmering purple and white wampum sash designs twirled down the length of the ship. Turquoise accents highlighted the bold letters spelling FOXWOODS along each side, paying tribute to both the tribe’s casino resort along with conveying Pequot cultural significance.
Several state politicians took their five-minute turns at the podium, congratulating Richard “Skip” Hayward (our tribal chairman at the time) and heralding the innovative genius of this new form of water transportation. Skip wore an elegant black suit, his hair combed back neatly and tucked under a white ball cap, which read: Pequot River Shipworks. Somewhat distracted from the speeches, I focused on the ship itself.
Sassacus was a vessel equipped with two jet turbine engines, capable of propelling it at a maximum of 55 miles per hour along the Long Island Sound waterways. Its twin-hulled design ensured a smooth ride, slicing effortlessly through waves and swells. An elegant teak finish with meticulously polished brass accents surrounded the vessel’s interior walls, complementing the colorful upholstered seating areas and luxurious wool marine carpeting. They were cabins fit for first class transportation, if not royalty. Two bar areas, one on each level of the ship, offered gourmet salads, assorted tea sandwiches and lobster rolls, beer, wines and top-shelf liquors. No expense was spared.
Then came the moment of Christening. Flashbulbs popped all around us as Myra Christensen, one of our beloved tribal elders, stood along side Skip to smash a giant magnum of champagne on cue against the ship’s hull. With a broad, lovely grin and one firm dash of her right arm, the job was done! The crowd cheered wildly as the bottle shattered, exploding its bubbly contents along one side of the vessel. It was a spectacular moment in our tribe’s history. Aunt Myra passed away years later, but I will never forget how absolutely beautiful she was that morning dressed in brown deerskin tribal regalia, trimmed in wampum beads and feathers.
Sassacus was a short lived dream due to the vessel’s exorbitant costs for construction, maintenance and operation. Jet fueled turbine engines were not economically feasible for the intended haul down to Manhattan and back to New London. Even the shorter jaunts scheduled between New London and Martha’s Vinyard, and Glen Cove to Lower Manhattan cost the tribe more than we could ever earn in ticket sales. Nevertheless, the ship’s first few years saw at least one extraordinary encounter with destiny.
The morning of September 11, 2001 began like any other Tuesday. Sassacus delivered its daily morning run of passengers to work from Glen Cove, Long Island to Lower Manhattan, only to suddenly become front row spectators to one of America’s most fearsome terrorist attacks on record. Captivated by the thick black smoke pouring high from the two concrete and glass towers of the World Trade Center, the ship’s crew watched in utter disbelief as the black soot and fiery ash filtered into the atmosphere and darkened the Manhattan skyline. Hundreds of tiny brown flecks drifted slowly downward, from the jet planes’ impact sites toward the Manhattan streets below. Jumpers.
Sassacus raced to the nearest pier, and its crew quickly joined with New York Port Authority officials in scrambling as many evacuees on board as possible. The Sassacus crew then rushed them all to safety at a nearby marina on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, and continued returning for more passengers as often as they were able. Several hundred people were rescued by Sassacus that morning, before the horrific, fateful collapse of the two buildings. Our ship was in the right place, at exactly the right time.
Sassacus and it’s sister vessel Tatobam were eventually sold to ferry management companies in the Bahamas and Southeast Asia, and Pequot River Shipworks closed its doors permanently nearly one decade ago. But…
If the only reason the vessel Sassacus existed was – against so many odds – to gain one strategic commuter ferry route from Glen Cove to lower Manhattan, and ultimately assist in rescuing as many hundreds of lives as it did…
Then I believe the Tribe’s ownership of Pequot River Shipworks and those two ships was very much worth the expense.
Below this article is a brief 10 minute video that features Sassacus’s former glory. About half way through this promotional film, you will see Sassacus cruise up to the Manhattan skyline in New York, and the majestic World Trade Center towers come into view. It’s a powerful moment…touching and beautiful. The final scenes feature a gorgeous Block Island harbor at sunset. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.