Healing Winds

Healing Winds has brought big changes to the lives of more than 300 cancer patients with therapeutic sails on Lake Champlain.

Healing Winds
Healing Winds is outgrowing Jubilee, its 1985 O'Day 28.5, and is looking for a sloop between 33 and 38 feet. If you're interested in donating, contact the organization.Courtesy of Healing Winds

Sitting quietly at the dock, the white O'Day 28.5 Jubilee, built more than three decades ago, doesn't look like much of a game-changer. But that's exactly what it's been for more than 300 people who have been dealing with cancer — either in treatment or finished with it because there's nothing else to be done.

For the past two summers, Vermonters Suzanne Johnson and Glen Findholt have spearheaded an organization called Healing Winds to take those patients, along with their family and friends, sailing on the scenic waters of Lake Champlain aboard Jubilee, providing them with a brief but valuable respite from their everyday challenges.

Says Johnson: “It’s really the one thing I know, from being a cancer patient, that families can do together, outside. When you’re going through chemo, even a simple thing like walking to the mailbox is a trek, so this is unique. The patients can just sit in the cockpit if they wish, or they can do whatever they want on the boat. But they’re on the water, and that’s healing.”

It’s a dramatic change for patients because they’re out there with no distractions and no set destination. “You go where the wind takes you,” says Johnson, “which is sort of what we all do in life.”

One of their more memorable passengers was Helen, who along with her sister Kathy and several other family members enjoyed a late-August sail aboard Jubilee. Two months later, Kathy called Johnson to say that Helen had died that morning. "She said, 'I want you to know that the entire family is here in our living room, and they're all talking about what an amazing sail that was with you,'" Johnson says. "'You provided something no one else was able to — memories that will be with us forever.'" Healing Winds takes passengers with all types of cancer and of all ages. "They show up with whomever they want to bring in tow," says Findholt. "We help them down to the boat, make sure they're comfortable, and then we're off for a three-hour sail. By and large, most are not sailors, and some have never been on a sailboat before." The boat is sailed by at least one licensed captain and a volunteer from the organization.

Launched in 2014, Healing Winds is a nonprofit with a board of eight and more than 100 volunteers, many of whom are cancer survivors or close to someone who has dealt with cancer. Program participation has sky­rocketed in just two years. In the first season, they took out 115 patients and caregivers. In 2015, that number swelled to 187, and the 2016 season had nearly 300 guests.

For more information, visit ­www.healingwindsvt.org.

— Dave Powlison