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The Love-Smitten Beginner

Dr. Helen Tam

Since BoomerCafé is all about baby boomers with active lifestyles, we like this story about Helen Tam, a gung-ho sailing enthusiast who proves it’s never too late to discover new passion. The cool thing is, it’s adapted from an article that appeared in SAIL Magazine, written by like-minded boomer (and sailor and surfer) Mike Petrie. He calls Ms. Tam a Love-Smitten Beginner.

When you’re a smart, bi-coastal, successful, physically fit boomer woman with a busy medical practice who pursues life experiences with real fervor, where do you turn for new challenges? To the sea!

Dr. Helen Tam has pursued her newest interest – sailing – with all the passion of a love-smitten teenager. A little over a year ago she knew little of sailing or the ocean. But in the span of a single year she has crewed in yacht races on both coasts, completed nearly every Coast Guard Auxiliary class available, is studying to obtain her Captain’s License, and purchased her own boat. This dedicated hardcore beginner is a force to be reckoned with. I happened to mention her zeal for the sport to my editor at SAIL magazine and was immediately asked to write an article about Helen.

Helen TamAnd so it was that on a recent warm day in Southern California, Helen and I set sail. My interview was a hit and miss operation, as her concentration was focused on every nuance of the boat; she kept leaping into action trimming sails, adjusting this-and-that, and only addressing my questions between nautical tasks. Throughout the afternoon, this woman’s energy level never waned.

Q: What turned you on to sailing in the first place?
A: Hmm. Mid-life crisis? I’m at that stage of life, ha-ha. A baby boomer looking to add some excitement. But I’ve always loved the ocean.

Q: Was there some pivotal moment when you knew that sailing was just what the doctor ordered? Pardon the pun.
A: First time out! Sailing a Catalina 25 (one model of sailboat) with my friend in San Diego Bay. Twenty-five knot winds, white caps, water over the rail. I didn’t know anything about sailing and the skipper had a look of trepidation on his face. But I felt thrill and excitement instead of fear.

Q: How about since then? The ocean can be a dangerous place. Any moments where fear entered the mix?
A: (Laughing) I’m crazy, I suppose, but I’ve never yet felt scared on a boat. I did an accidental gybe that first time out and survived. Another time I capsized in a Lido 14 (another model of sailboat) during Santa Ana winds, but was able to right it just as an oncoming ferry was approaching. It was a close call, but I survived with the boat – and myself – intact. Each time, I felt as if I cheated death (more laughter) and that just makes it all the more exciting. Don’t misunderstand. I have a healthy respect for the ocean, the dangers involved, and always try to take appropriate precautions.

helen-with-tall-shipsQ: So, you’d recommend sailing to anyone looking to add a dose of excitement to their life?
A: Oh yes! Excitement, challenge, adventure. And learning new things like navigation, boat-handling, dynamics of wind on sails.

Q: What were your worst times out sailing?
A: There are no worst times. Sailing is like pizza: ALL pizza is good, some pizzas are merely better than others.

Q: What is it about sailing that turns you on the most?
A: (Again laughing) 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 skills yacht racing; winning an all-female race recently at Naples Yacht Club in Florida. EVERYTHING about sailing is such a turn on. But I guess what I truly enjoy most is winding down after a day of sailing my boat hard, and simply watching sunsets at sea. The sky turning a fiery orange, wanting it to go on forever, not wanting to return to port, to just keep on sailing … to head for the South Pacific instead.

Q: Is that a goal? To sail the South Pacific?
A: Absolutely. I’m trying to find a crew position for the next Transpac race (from California to Hawaii) to get ocean-crossing experience. My real goal is to cross solo one day.

Q: If you were to sum up your experiences sailing into a one-liner, what would it be?
A: I cheated death again!



Wendy says:

  1. Yeay, baby boomer women! This is what I’m talking about!
    I’m a Texas attorney-baby boomer-female sailor. I know exactly what she is feeling out there on the sea. There’s absolutely nothing like it. Go girl!

  2. Laura Lee aka the Midlife Crisis Queen says:

    This is what midlife is all about! Don’t think getting older, think what do I want to try next???

    Be bold and GO FOR IT!!!

    The Midlife Crisis Queen!

  3. Pam says:

    Inspirational! Loved this. I dont think sailing is quite my thing – I have tendency toward seasickness and like the feel of terra firma under my feet – but still loved it. When a person finds such passion about something, especially at this stage in ones life, it is absolutely inspirational.

  4. Robert Humphreys says:

    Mike is a fine writer that has a terrific way of connecting us to the moment and the person. I love the ocean too and live with it most days in Malibu. The ocean brings so many interests to so many people, surfing, sailing, fishing, diving and these are just a few of the fun things. The oceans health is imperative to our survival on this wonderful planet, perhaps the more people are involved with it on a personal level the more we will understand its need for care. The best thing that we Boomers can offer to the next generation is to enjoy this place as much as we have.

  5. David says:

    Okay, Helen, where do I sign-up to be a crew member?


  6. Frank Lee says:

    A woman who loves boats, the great outdoors, is trim, has a great smile. She’s perfect! What I want to know is Is she single!

  7. Lisa Edelstein says:

    Way to go sister! I love women who go after something new and exciting. It is good to know that we have interests other than being a wife and mother. I am so envious. I love to sail as well and after reading this article I am going to get out there and have some fun. Keep sailing! Life is too short.

  8. anonymous says:

    Where oh where does she get her energy??? This woman is a baby boomer (my parents gen). I’m in my 20s and got tired just reading about her. The author too. What is it about that generation? I know Mike Petrie. He runs in races and marathons (perish the thought), runs the office (could not pay me enough), runs to court (he’s a lawyer, again no thanks), owns a real estate company (and a couple other businesses to I think), surfs in the ocean (any idea how cold that water is), writes magazines and is writing a book (I’ll read one but don’t ask me to write one). And he has two little kids at home that I know keep him running around. OMG just kill me now! (I hope he knows I’m just really joking)

  9. anonymous 2 says:

    All depends on your perspective. The Mike Petrie I know is almost always late getting to the office because he’s been out jogging on the beach, playing tennis, surfing. Then he leaves early to go sailing on his boat or do happy hour with friends. (Just kidding of course. Or am I?)But he’s a good writer and usually writes about fun things that I enjoy reading.

  10. David says:

    We need to hear from Helen about all these nice comments!

  11. olivia says:

    Awesome, awesome! Love it love it!! Great writing, great adventure, great life. I want to be her.Inspiring. All the above. You go girl!!

  12. imp says:

    She’s probably out sailing! Good for her. Maybe she just kept on going to some south sea isle. When I grow up I want to be her, ha ha. Really, not kidding. Luved reading this. Now I am truly inspired to do something exciting with my life. Thank you!

  13. carla says:

    If we don’t hear from this woman it is because she is way to busy. keep on sailing girl! follow those dreams and make them all come true. too many people dont make their dreams come true.

  14. LJ says:

    To anonymous 1&2: The key is knowing how to properly balance work and play. Though I’m sure Michael appreciates you reading his articles . . . It’s time to log off the internet and get back to work! lol

  15. Clark Brody says:

    Mike, is a good writer and always captures the excitement and spirit of the sailing experience.

  16. htam says:

    What is Helen Up to? well, she is busy with the Toshiba Tallship festival september 11th -12th. She will be crewing on new Tallship called Irwin Johnson besides her normal volunteer crew duty for the Pilgrims and Spirit of Dana. She will be sailing from San Pedro to Dana Point Harbor.
    check out : http://www.tallshipsfestival.com

    Support the Ocean Institute!!
    H Tam

  17. MIKE PETRIE says:

    Me thinks Dr. Helen Tam is a tad too modest in recounting what she’s been up to. Fact is, this woman continues to live her life like the Energizer Bunny. Since I wrote the article about her for SAIL Magazine, Helen has sold her boat in Southern California and purchased a larger but much older boat in Northern California that she’s fixing up and rigging for a South Sea cruise. Here’s the latest email I received from her, recounting in greater detail what she’s been doing lately:

    Enjoyed seeing the SAIL story on Boomer Café. I did not know that I actually might be inspiring other people. Cool! Of course, I am totally oblivious of what’s going on since I have been so busy trying to stay focused with my goal to sail to the South Pacific.

    Well, it is a challenge trying to fix up the Jenneau 38 and flying back and forth to and from San Francisco since April. I learned about taking a solenoid apart from the engine, lifting out a 180 lb marine battery by myself, installing a water heater, jump starting engines… Overwhelming… At times I wanted to torch the boat, but I refused to give up. The boat is way behind schedule. It was supposed to go on sea trial 3 wks ago but the engine failed to start. I called a mechanic but he was not immediately available. Out of desperation, I took the tool kits and start dismantling the solenoid on my own and after several more few phone calls found a warehouse in a rather dismal neighborhood (West Oakland industrial area) that supposedly stocks all solenoid. But, of course, they did not have the particular solenoid that I needed. The solenoid I have was made in England 25 years ago, so they offered to custom make one for me. That would take too long so the guy at the shop suggested that I jump start the engine and bypass the switch. I took the solenoid back to the boat, reinstalled and jump started. It works, but now I have to build a switch for it. It took me 3 hrs to get to the boat last week end when the Bay Bridge was closed. Ugh!

    Meanwhile, life continues with sailing and getting more blue water experience. I just joined the Exxy /Irwin Johnson Tallship and will be crewing for this tallship out of San Pedro. In fact, I will be sailing her down tonight from San Pedro to Dana Point for Tallship Festival this week end. Of course, I still crew on the Pilgrim and Spirit of Dana Point ships and am also part of The Coast Guard Auxiliary and am out there on patrol with them. So it has been crazy dividing my time between 3 tall ships, racing on Melge, upcoming races in Naples in Oct/Nov, doing the Bahaha cruise and Bash, crewing on a 45 foot race boat called Tiger Beetle out of Alameda, keeping up with my duty with the Coast Guard and my own boat and fishing for tuna (got two yellow fin tuna with the last outing trip), and trying to practice medicine all the while.

    Hope to see you down at Dana Point this week end for the Tall Ships!

  18. freemanmarine says:

    Spent the morning with HTam working on her sad lucas electrical problem we’ll have her sailing soon. What a treat to spend time with such a positive person in such a negitive world. Quite the little pirate she is.

  19. MIKE says:

    Saw Helen at the Dana Point Tall Ships Festival all dressed up like a pirate and working the deck of one of the tall ships. She never stops!

  20. Laura says:

    Fun story. Energetic lady. Great writing!

  21. Strider says:

    Sailing and the people who live it! Good writing. Fun story. I’m a fan of this writer and this sort of writing about people who really grab life. Keep it coming.

  22. htam says:


  23. htam says:

    Back from Baja Bash. Awsome trip. Lot of fun and even catch fish. Terrific and awsome captain, Robert MacFarlane on Tiger Beetle and Great crew, Dan Marshall.
    Would I do the bash again? YES!!!

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