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A sailing oasis is found among elephants

Co-founder of animal sanctuary finds his solace on 25-acre Tennessee lake with his dog, Maggie

Co-founder of animal sanctuary finds his solace on 25-acre Tennessee lake with his dog, Maggie

For Scott Blais, the call of the wild can be the trumpeting of an elephant or it can be the crack of a pistol as he tacks across the starting line — adrenalin flowing, senses sharpened by friendly rivalry.

Blais, 34, is a co-founder of The Elephant Sanctuary, a 2,700-acre refuge for sick, old and needy elephants in rural Hohenwald, Tenn., a place where he also rediscovered his love of sailing.

He and co-founder Carol Buckley, named a 1998 Time magazine Hero for the Planet for her advocacy for elephants in captivity, opened the sanctuary in 1995 on 112 acres of forestland, 70 miles from Nashville.

They had one elephant, Buckley’s Tarra, an aging 7,600-pound Indian elephant. Today the sanctuary offers free range to 18 African and Asian elephants, all of them retired — or referrals — from zoos, circuses or carnivals. Some just need a retirement home. Others arrive with health or behavioral problems. A few are finding a new home at the sanctuary because some zoos are deciding elephants really don’t thrive in close confinement and are closing their elephant exhibits.

Blais says working in an elephant sanctuary is kind of like working on a big ranch. It’s long hours and hard work, seven days a week.

“Anything you can imagine doing on a farm, that’s what we do here,” he says. The first feeding is at 7 or 8 in the morning, the last one 10 to 11 at night. Sanctuary workers feed the animals, shovel lots of manure, tote bails, mend fences, treat illnesses, maintain the elephant house and help the elephants return to the wild after long confinements.

“It doesn’t leave as much time for sailing as I’d like,” says Blais, who has two passions these days — elephants and sailing.

Blais, a native of Auburn, Maine, remembers one summer of great sailing on LakeOntario when he was a teenager, and that summer left a deep impression on him. His family had moved to Toronto, and he had the chance to crew for a summer on a family friend’s C&C 27. He raced. He cruised. And he loved it. He didn’t get much of a chance to sail again — until he moved to land-locked Tennessee.

“Once the passion is there, it never dies,” he says.

During a 2003 expansion, the sanctuary incorporated a 25-acre lake. Looking for a recreational outlet, Blais talked Buckley into going halves with him in buying a dinghy, a 10-foot Hunter Excite.

Surrounded by hills, the sanctuary was a tough place to take up sailing again. “The hills do funky things to the wind,” Blais says. “It comes off a hill, hits the water and goes four different directions.”

Racing being a social sport, Blais met a J/22 sailor who invited him to race Wednesday nights on PercyPriestLake, five miles from downtown Nashville. Blais found it difficult to break away from the sanctuary and drive the hour-and-a-half to Nashville. When finally he did arrive one Wednesday, the J/22 sailor wasn’t there but another skipper picked him up as crew on his 26-foot S2 7.9. “It was a phenomenal experience,” Blais says. Now he’s a Wednesday night regular.

Sailing had hooked him again, in the middle of landlocked Tennessee. “I began to realize how little I really knew about sailing,” he said. “They’ve got a pretty accomplished, very competitive fleet there.”

Today, Blais races out of the Percy Priest Yacht Club and travels to Charleston, S.C., Annapolis, Md., and St. Petersburg, Fla. from time to time to compete in S2 7.9 class and NOOD (National Offshore One-design) regattas. Two years ago, he bought his own 1982 S2 7.9. “I’m going through all the joys and woes of boat ownership,” he says. He spent the winter of ’06-’07 repairing dry rot in the balsa core, then raced in the spring-summer and fall of ’07.Again this summer he is “looking forward to another educational year on the water,” he says.

“There are only two things that capture my mind enough to get it off the sanctuary,” Blais says. “That’s sailing and skiing, and there are a lot more opportunities to sail than ski in Tennessee.”

Blais worked as a teen with elephants at Toronto’s African Lion Safari, where he treated sick elephants, monitored their breeding, trained them, helped train other keepers, and gave educational demonstrations and elephant rides to the public. He studied biology at YorkUniversity in Toronto for a year, then worked for Buckley caring for Tarra, which entertained in circuses, television and movies. Two years later, he and Buckley pooled their resources, bought 112 acres in Tennessee and co-founded The Elephant Sanctuary. Today the sanctuary has 70,000 members and enough land for 100 elephants to roam, Blais says.

He says elephants aren’t happy without room to roam. He and Buckley advocate for freeing them from close confinement. The sanctuary takes females only. “Carol had been talking about doing something like this for years,” he said. “I was young and naïve. I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”