A love-smitten beginner
By Michael Petrie
When you’re an intelligent, successful, physically fit, forty-something woman with a busy medical practice who pursues life experiences with real fervor, where do you turn for new challenges?
My friend, Dr. Helen Tam, 47, from Irvine, California, has pursued her newest interest—sailing—with all the passion of a love-smitten teenager. In the span of a single year she has crewed in races on both coasts, has become a regular crewmember aboard a competitive Melges 32, completed nearly every Coast Guard Auxiliary class available, is studying to obtain her Captain’s License, and has purchased her own boat. She's a one-woman force to be reckoned with.
On a recent warm January day in Southern California, we were out on her Ranger 22, Fish Queen, and I asked her how she came to love the sport of sailing. The interview was hit and miss, as Helen was focused on every nuance of the boat; she kept leaping into action trimming sails, adjusting this-and-that, and only answering my queries when idle.
What turned you on to sailing in the first place?
Hmm. Mid-life crisis? I’m at that stage of life. Looking to add some excitement, and I’ve always loved the ocean.
Was there some pivotal moment when you knew that sailing was just what the doctor ordered? Pardon the pun.
First time out! Sailing a Catalina 25 with my friend in San Diego Bay. Twenty-five knot winds, white caps, water over the rail. I felt thrill and excitement instead of fear.
So it’s the adrenaline rush?
(Laughing) Maybe it’s the feeling of cheating death that makes sailing feel so alive. I did an accidental gybe that first time out and survived. Another time I capsized in a Lido 14 during Santa Ana winds, but was able to right it just as an oncoming ferry was approaching. Don’t misunderstand—I have a healthy respect for the ocean, the dangers involved, and always try to take appropriate precautions, but I love the feeling that I’ve survived adverse conditions.
So, it’s really the challenges that turn you on?
Sure... and so much more. Every time my boat heels and water comes over the rail! Chasing after the tall ships at Dana Point with my little boat and getting caught in the mock cannon battles; flying my spinnaker; crewing and honing my racing skills; winning an all-female race recently at the Naples Yacht Club in Florida. Everything about sailing is such a turn on. But I guess what I truly enjoy most is simply watching sunsets at sea—the sky turning bright orange, wanting it to go on forever, not wanting to return to port, to head for the South Pacific instead.
Is that a goal? To sail the South Pacific?
Absolutely! I’m trying to find a crew position for the next Transpac race to get ocean-crossing experience. My real goal is to cross solo one day.
If you were to sum up your sailing experiences into a one-liner, what would it be?
I cheated death again!