A lifelong sailor, Shelburne’s Suzanne Johnson is helping families heal, one sail at a time.
Photos by Whit Wales
“I had no idea what I was doing,” said Suzanne Johnson on a sunny day in June. The Shelburne resident was sitting in the cockpit of the 39-foot O’Day sailboat, Gypsy Wind, reflecting back to four years ago, when she launched the nonprofit Healing Winds. As we spoke, volunteer captain Tom Peterson motored the vessel out of Burlington Harbor and onto the open lake for one of the nonprofit’s volunteer training sails. There was a gentle 5-knot breeze and a radiant view of the Adirondacks.
Four years ago, Johnson, a 20-year Vermont resident, was navigating treatment for breast cancer herself. She was a single mom with three kids. Before her diagnosis, she’d worked in real estate (she continued to do this while battling cancer), owned Tilley’s Café in Burlington, and even worked as a commercial sailing captain. A vibrant personality, Johnson (now 56) was used to skiing in the winter and being on the water in the summer. She found herself looking for a purpose while in recovery. “I had no hair at that point,” said the striking blonde.
A therapist suggested she find a way to give back to other cancer patients through her talent for sailing. Johnson knew from her own experience that cancer wears on the people closest to the person diagnosed. Treatment and grief can drive families apart. She found that few if any nonprofits focus on helping the family of those affected by a cancer diagnosis. So she decided to start one.
Within eight months, she had acquired a 28-foot O’Day called Jubilee as a gift from an acquaintance who was dying of cancer. She created an anonymous online nomination process, where anyone can nominate someone in their life who is dealing with a cancer diagnosis, whether a neighbor, a friend, a family member or themselves. She spent hours talking with nominees to schedule sails around their chemotherapy and treatment schedules.
“When you find yourself facing your own mortality with cancer and you are lucky enough to survive… you are also given the opportunity… to find ways to make a difference in people’s lives who are and were not as fortunate as you were,” Johnson said.
And she launched Healing Winds.
Today, Healing Winds offers free three-hour private sails to people dealing with a cancer diagnosis and nine of their closest friends, family or caregivers. If we were on a live sail with a “nominee,” as volunteers
and staff refer to their clients, the guest of honor would have been invited to take the helm once we passed outside of Burlington’s breakwater. The nonprofit has been fueled by volunteers, donors and Johnson’s tenacity.
And now it is expanding into a national charity with local chapters. What Johnson may have initially lacked in terms of nonprofit experience, she more than made up for in her knowledge of sailing, business and her ability to network.
Johnson grew up in coastal Connecticut, and her father, Frank Snyder was a commodore of the New York Yacht Club. Suzanne earned her commercial captain’s license at age 22. “I can’t remember not being around big boats,” she said before jumping up to the mast to help hoist and cleat the main sail.
Johnson found that being a cancer survivor allowed her to relate and communicate with people who were in the throes of treatment. That helped her recover emotionally and physically from her own battle. “I’d call people in hospice about their nomination, and they’d say, ‘Thanks Suzanne, but I’m done. I’m tired of it being about me.’ And I’d say ‘Hey, I get it. But think of this as an opportunity for you to say thank you to your caregivers and family and for them to make memories with you while you’re here,’” she said. She found normalcy was what patients craved, and an opportunity to rebuild relationships that had taken a backseat to their illness.
Jose Torres and his wife Lisa participated in a sail with Healing Winds on June 17, Father’s Day. Torres, who lives in Enfield, NH, was diagnosed with Stage 4 gastric cancer in September 2017. He taught his three now-adult children to sail. They joined him for his trip.
“Sailing is a great metaphor for life,” said Torres. “We’re dealt the hand we’re given. We use what Mother Nature offers us, and we are at her mercy to get from point A to B.” His wife Lisa said she was grateful for the opportunity to relax as a family. “We have to think, could this be the last Father’s Day? We have to make the most of every day we have. It was like we stopped the world for a minute to enjoy each other.”
Another participant, Karen Newman of South Burlington, said she was first nominated to sail with Healing Winds in 2016. She was battling Stage 4 cancer. She’s a world-class triathlete accustomed to spending time outside. At the time, she couldn’t sit down. “Our lives are loud. When you’re in treatment, there are machines whirring around you, ‘beep!’ It’s time for your chemo! To have no noise but each other and the wind? That is freedom.”
Since 2014, Healing Winds has expanded its client base fourfold. During the first summer of operations, the nonprofit took 110 people sailing. By 2016, the sails were so popular that they couldn’t accommodate all of the guests they wanted to. Johnson sought a bigger boat.
In the spring of 2016, she took a trip to the New York Yacht Club, where she pitched her idea to expand Healing Winds. Inspired by the story of Healing Winds, an anonymous donor offered the O’Day 39-foot vessel Gypsy Wind. The larger boat allowed the group to run 47 sails between June and October of 2017, taking out 432 people.
It also encouraged Johnson to think about how to expand to other states. When the nonprofit was recently offered a C&C (Cuthbertson & Cassian) 37-foot sailboat she decided that vessel would stay in Cape Ann, Mass., where Johnson has been in contact with several sailors interested in establishing a new Salem-based chapter of Healing Winds.
“Our goal is to serve as many people as possible, while making sure that the branding is consistent,” says Johnson. She said she’s been contacted by sailing groups in 13 port cities across the country, including Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Baltimore, who have expressed interest in starting their own Healing Winds chapters. Donors have likewise popped up to offer boats.
“Opening a new chapter on the ocean will open the gates for fundraising,” said Johnson. After the Boston area, she has her sights set on opening a chapter in the Southeast. “In Charleston or West Palm Beach you can sail 11 months out of the year. Here, it’s June through September, sometimes October.”
Healing Winds is funded primarily through donations. Johnson said the organization’s mission is easy to pitch. “People really want to get on board with this cause.” Locally, sailors have been eager to donate sails, labor and equipment. “I think that people want to give funds and see them stay in their community.” She’s been working with attorneys from Burlington-based law firm Downs Rachlin Martin to craft agreements that maintain a consistent brand, but allow each chapter to function as its own 501(c)(3) charity.
On the boat, Johnson is gregarious and warm. She leads with the effortless confidence of someone who has been a ship’s captain for a long time. She spends a full day training each volunteer in how to be professional while connecting with people who may have a terminal illness or an unknown amount of time to live. Lisa Torres said this diligence shows in the crew members’ demeanors. “I was impressed,” she said of the crew’s professionalism.
“We aim to deliver a day without cancer,” said Johnson when we arrived back at the dock. To do this effectively, she says Healing Winds has to expand beyond Lake Champlain.
Newman says she supports that expansion. “To go from a hospital to a boat in a beautiful landscape, to have the wind in your hair and see the beauty around us… to feel exhilarated again, people all over the world need this. It is so much more than a boat ride.”