The moment you meet Capt. Jack Sanzalone, you sense his presence commands respect. In all aspects of his life, he always tries to find a way to improve situations instead of just staying idle.
After graduating from high school in North Plainfield, New Jersey, Jack attended Somerset County Technical Institute and became a diesel technician. He spent just a short time in that field and quickly learned it wasn’t for him.
“I remember working on an engine under a garbage truck in the summer in New Jersey, and it was 100 degrees … and I realized I did not want to stay in that business,” he said.
So he decided to join the United States Navy. His father had served in the Air Force, so it sounded like a good plan.
He spent about two years on surface ships when his mentor noticed some special characteristics that would make him a good match for a different kind of challenge. Jack was passionate about celestial navigation, and he was also very good at math.
“He was a former submariner and thought I would do well serving in that capacity,” Jack said. “He actually filled out the application for me … and when my superiors called me in to let me know I was accepted, I was shocked.”
There were two phases to getting accepted into the program; the first was to learn basic submarine skills, and the second was psychological testing.
“They do a very thorough job with that, because when you have 140 submariners in 1,700 square feet of living space for three months, you have to know who will be able to remain calm in situations.”
A standard submarine is about 400 feet long and has four levels.
As part of his training, Jack was blindfolded and told to walk from the upper level to an undisclosed place, and then go to the engine room below and find water valve 12 and shut it off. “It was very challenging training,” he said.
“The worst things that can happen on a submarine are a fire or a flood.”
He earned his “Silver Dolphins” after six months, which are a testament to knowing the basics of every system aboard the submarine from bow to stern. It takes about a year to qualify as a submariner.
Jack rose through the ranks pretty fast. Within just seven years he achieved the rank of Chief Petty Officer, which is very quick in the U.S. Navy.
In total he served on nine submarines during his duty.
During his career he had conversations with former President Carter (also a former submariner) and Admiral H.G. Rickover, who directed the original development of naval nuclear propulsion.
Jack met his wife and first mate, Dawn, while he was on duty in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Jack was stationed there, and Dawn’s cousin was also in the Navy and stationed there at the same time.
She came to visit her cousin and Jack went with him to pick her up at the airport. “I was speechless – she was absolutely stunning,” he said.
Within a month he asked Dawn to marry him, and then he left for a six-month deployment. Jack returned in November and they were married on Dec. 8, 1991 in Pearl Harbor.
Jack and Dawn have three children: Angeline, Stephanie and Antonio.
They have one grandson, Aiden, who is eight.
Stephanie is married to an Air Force airman who is currently serving in Turkey.
“I had a rewarding and fulfilling career, but I have to say the harder part of it was on Dawn,” Jack said. “We have three wonderful kids, and all of the credit goes to her. She is a very strong woman.”
After serving for three decades, retiring wasn’t as easy as he thought.
“For 30 years I woke up every day with a purpose – it is impossible to explain how it feels going from Master Chief to just Jack.”
He still does some consulting with high-ranking admirals who are currently serving and look to him for advice.
About a month after retiring, he became a juvenile probation officer. He worked with kids aged seven to 17.
“I like being able to fix things, but I learned you cannot fix the behavior of others,” he said. “You can make suggestions and try to help them find a better path, but you can’t make them change.”
That led him to earn a degree in teaching.
He led the ROTC program at North Port High School for two years.
“I’m very proud to say the unit had been established for a long time, and we went up to the top position for two years in a row. That was very rewarding.”
Being a sailor for 30 years, Jack realized that he should probably get his captain’s license from the United States Coast Guard.
Once the instructors learned about Jack’s experience, they realized he should actually be teaching the classes, and he is now certified to teach every course offered by the organization.
He’s taught courses in coastal leadership and resource management at the Hess Refinery in St. Thomas, St. Croix, Alabama and throughout Florida.
Now that they are empty nesters, Jack and Dawn felt it was the perfect time to start a business. They launched Gasparilla Boat Tours in Placida in November, 2017.
“We were certified through the Coast Guard on February 12, and on February 14 we had a Valentine’s Day cruise,” Jack said.
Since then, they’ve been welcoming guests aboard their custom-built 30’ catamaran and helping them learn about the history of this area while providing a relaxing boat ride.
During the tours, guests enjoy seeing dolphins, manatees and sea birds from the comfortable covered vessel. The captain provides historical facts about the area during the ride, and first mate Dawn is there to answer any questions people may have.
As it has for many fishing guides in the area, red tide has hurt the family business recently.
“We’re in the same boat as everyone else. We’ve been pretty slow lately due to the red tide, so I’ve been teaching more courses,” he said. “At least I can keep my mind going, and I really love teaching.”
Jack’s mother is from Italy, and the family always had a garden while he was growing up.
“I actually have a degree in botany,” he said. “I culminated my degree at the University of New York through the Navy.
During his naval career, Jack and Dawn owned a plant nursery for 16 years in Port Orchard, Washington.
“We grew a little bit of everything,” he said. “We had 12 acres and 7,000 square feet of greenhouse space. We specialized in Japanese maples, lavender, and perennials.”
So what is next for Capt. Jack?
My goal is to write a book,” he said. “I think people would appreciate reading about a submarine guy with such a diverse background.”
The owners have been working with some local beer and wine distributors and may soon be offering a “Sunset Sampling Cruise” and other kinds of onboard entertainment.
“We want to be different, and our goal is to offer people more options.”
To book a tour, call (833) 786-8687 or visit gasparillaboattours.com for more information.