Steven Sacknoff has traded 35 years of teaching science at PS 8 in the Bronx and long hours sailing on the Hudson River to become captain of electric boats on the Gordon River in Naples, Florida, where he teaches his passengers about the ecosystem of the region.
“As soon as I retired in 2002 and moved down here,” he explained, “I realized I had a lot to learn about my new home environment.”
A tip from a friend soon had Sacknoff looking into the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, an advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the unique natural environment of the area. When he found out he could apply for training to learn how to captain 21-foot-long boats that go out on 45-minute excursions every day, all day — depending on tides, winds and weather — he signed on. And, like any high school student earning a driver’s license, to earn his license Sacknoff had to pass the parallel parking test so passengers could board and disembark from the boat. He passed and launched his new career as a boat captain.
“My background and interest in teaching science, along with my enjoyment of sailing, provided me with the perfect skills for my new volunteer work,” he said.
Most of what Sacknoff tells the 11 passengers on each excursion is about the ecosystem of the area and life on the banks of the river and the estuaries where he takes them, but he can occasionally point out a manatee or a crocodile. He compares planning his narrative for passengers to creating a lesson plan.
When Sacknoff is not piloting his boat, he trains other volunteers to be good storytellers and to handle the boats, the two skills they will be tested on. Lots of lectures and field trips keep him involved in the busy conservancy center, which includes an animal hospital and an interactive discovery center.
“I’ve been on the same Wednesday afternoon shift for 12 years,” he says, “and made many friends from all over the country who also volunteer here.”
The boat trips seem to be the most popular activity at the center, he said, attracting both American and foreign tourists as well as school trips.
While Sacknoff describes himself as “an environmentalist and tree hugger,” he finds the best part of the boat trip is interacting with passengers, many of them “wide-eyed” at the unfamiliar ecosystem in Florida.
“I especially enjoy the happy faces and applause when we come back to port,” he said.