Suzanne Snyder Johnson’80 gives patients and their families a day on the sea—and a chance to leave their worries behind
If you’ve ever known a person with cancer—and you have—you understand why you wouldn’t say to them, “The universe has a plan.” But talking to Suzanne Snyder Johnson ’80—cancer survivor, entrepreneur, boat captain, and nonprofit genius—it’s crazily tempting. Luckily, she jumps in and says it herself: “I really believe that I survived cancer to give people joy, solace, peace, and relief as they battle this disease. The ability to create opportunities for those who are sorely in need—that means everything to me.”
The “opportunities” that Johnson cherishes are the sailing trips she provides free of charge to cancer patients through her nonprofit, Sail Beyond Cancer. Operating from two locations—Burlington, Vermont, where Johnson lives, and Salem, Massachusetts—the organization provides three-hour excursions to anyone with cancer, their family, and friends. The program is donation-funded and powered by compassion; the captains and crew are all volunteers. “This is an opportunity for patients to make memories—and to be outside with their loved ones,” Johnson says. “I believe that being on the water sailing is a transformative experience.” Those who have sailed with her agree. “Cancer is at turns boring then excruciating,” observed a patient named Abe. “This sail made me feel alive again.”
Johnson’s path to this moment is both obvious and completely implausible. As with any life, you can connect particular dots to end up with a picture of now. For Johnson, those dots include: growing up on the water in Greenwich, Connecticut.; having a father who was commodore of the New York Yacht Club; going to Williston where she met like-minded sailing enthusiasts; and getting her captain’s license five years after graduating. At that time, she thought, “Maybe, I’ll sail around the world!”
But she didn’t. She married, had three children (Jessie, Alec ’14, and Caroline), and worked in real estate. She divorced and raised the kids on her own. She bought and sold Tilley’s Café, a popular Hawaiian-style nautical-themed restaurant in Burlington. And, then—fast forward to 2010—she found a lump in her breast. She was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.
Johnson went through chemo and radiation treatments. To stay sane, she sailed with friends. Once recovered, she took a job at the Red Cross as a major gifts officer. “And the whole time, while I’m learning about development, I am thinking, ‘What if I were able to start a nonprofit connected to what I just went through?’” she says. “‘What would that look like?’”
A pivotal suggestion came from a therapist and cancer survivor, who encouraged Johnson to unite her love of sailing and her care for those battling cancer. “Immediately, that idea took hold of my heart,” she recalls. “When I would mention it to friends, they were incredibly supportive, saying, ‘You should so do it!’ But, in the next sentence they would say, ‘Where are you going to find a boat!?’ The first time I heard that question, I had no idea. But the second time, I answered, ‘A boat will come to me.’” And, it did.
Soon after making that declaration, Johnson was invited to dinner with the family of a man she was dating. At the table, a beloved uncle suddenly put down his drink, burst into tears, and told the family that he was dying of cancer. After dinner, knowing that Johnson had just gone through treatment herself, Uncle Al and Johnson shared their experiences and dreams for the future. Four months later, having lived past his doctor’s predictions but nearing the end, Uncle Al summoned Johnson to the family home, sat her down, and asked, “Do you want my boat?”
It was perfect: a 30-foot O’Day sailboat named Jubilee. Johnson hesitated. “Uncle Al,” she began, “I’m thinking of splitting up with your nephew.” Uncle Al didn’t blink. “This is for you and what you need to do.” And, in the summer of 2014, on the waters of Lake Champlain, her first nonprofit, Healing Winds, was born.
The venture grew quickly. Johnson was able add boats and an additional location. By 2019, Healing Winds had taken out more than 1,800 groups, and had enlisted more than 18 captains and 100 volunteers. However, in 2020, a split in the board and issues relating to trademarks caused Johnson to leave the organization. She started up again with her new group, Sail Beyond Cancer, a change she sees as “an opportunity to start afresh and remake this new organization to serve our communities with even greater clarity and intention.” She is now working to expand the organization from its two locations (and invites any Williston alums who have experienced cancer or who are passionate about sailing to get involved).
This summer, as COVID-19 forced changes to excursion protocols, the sails continued, with the help of screenings, reduced crews, and guest limitations. “Cancer does not stop for COVID,” Johnson points out. And it is clear she has found her calling. “We provide silver linings— actions and metaphors that have meaning,” she explains. “Casting off the lines, giving control over to the elements, and then, even though their lives may be completely out of control physically, psychically, and emotionally, we turn off the engine and let the patient take the helm. For three hours, everything else is left on shore…”