Thanks to Boy Scout training, college student saves teen from drowning

Lifesaving skills learned as a 13-year-old Eagle Scout made the difference when San Marco resident Ross Johnson was called to save a young teen from drowning in Neptune Beach ocean waters May 17. In recognition of his heroic save, Johnson was awarded the prestigious Lifesaving Award by the Neptune Beach Police Department during the Neptune Beach City Council meeting Aug. 3.

Ross Johnson
Ross Johnson

Johnson, a 20-year-old student at Jacksonville University, had arrived an hour early with his friends and family for a dinner reservation at the Neptune Beach Town Center when the group decided to take a short walk on the beach. Little did Johnson know he would be soon called upon to save a life.

“We’d arrived a bit early, so we went down to the beach to take a walk. As we neared the ocean, we saw a woman running out of the water calling desperately for help. She was screaming repeatedly that her nephew was drowning. At first, we thought she was just kidding because the ocean seemed far too rough for anybody to be actually swimming in it. Tropical Storm Arthur was right off the coast causing huge, mushy surf,” Johnson recalled.

Scanning the waves, Johnson and his party did not immediately see a struggling swimmer, but after searching a few moments, his father, Bill, spotted something in the water far beyond the breaking waves. “We saw a dark head bouncing around, about 150 yards out,” said Bill Johnson, noting it was the woman’s nephew, who had probably gotten dragged out into the ocean by a rip current. “The lifeguards were no longer on duty and there were no surfboards or other flotation devices in the area, so I knew I had to do something right away,” said Johnson.

Seeing no sign of an obvious runout, both Johnson and his father urgently yanked off their shirts and shoes, emptied their pockets and ran into the water. However, Bill Johnson quickly discovered he was no match for the rough sea and turned back quickly allowing his son to push on alone once he reached the breakers. “By the time I got to the breakers, my heart rate was so high, I couldn’t go any further,” Bill said. “Ross is younger and more fit. I knew if I kept going, my son would have to decide whether to rescue the kid or me. I had to make a choice.” Yelling for his son to continue, he turned back to call 9-1-1.

Meanwhile, Johnson dove through the breakers and was swimming as hard has he could. “It was a challenge to get through the rough water, and it sapped a lot of my energy, but eventually I started nearing the figure and realized it was a young teenage boy. His head kept going under the waves, so I knew I had to get to him fast,” Ross said. “I finally reached him and as I held him up to keep his head above water, he told me he didn’t know how to swim and that he couldn’t feel his legs. I didn’t know how long he had been out there, but I suspected he had been pulled out by a rip current and was physically exhausted from treading water for so long. I began gradually leading him toward shore, but he kept slipping under water and grabbing me around my shoulders and neck to pull himself up, causing me to then go under and choke on saltwater.”

It was then the life-saving skills Johnson learned so many years before in Boy Scout Troop 136, which meets at All Saint’s Episcopal Church, came into play. “I adjusted how I was holding him so that he was on his back with one of my arms around his chest so I was able to swim while keeping his head above water without him pulling me under,” Johnson said. “This allowed me to work back toward shore and eventually to the first breakers where my father and another volunteer were able to take him from me just as I was at my limit from exhaustion.” The Neptune Beach Fire and Rescue squad took over once the victim was brought into the beach, he said.

Certificate given to Ross Johnson by the Neptune Beach Police recognizing his dramatic rescue.
Certificate given to Ross Johnson by the Neptune Beach Police recognizing his dramatic rescue.

In addition to receiving the Lifesaving Award from the City of Neptune Beach, Johnson has also been nominated for the prestigious Boy Scout Lifesaving Award. “It means a great deal to me to receive this lifesaving award from the Neptune Beach Police Department, an organization for which I have great respect and admiration as their officers put their lives on the line each and every day to protect their community,” Johnson said. “It shows how much the city of Neptune Beach cares about its citizens and visitors and appreciates those who get the opportunity to assist them.”

A dean’s list student who is entering his sophomore year at Jacksonville University on a president’s scholarship, Johnson said he didn’t think twice about whether or not to try to save the 13-year-old boy. “It just seemed that I had to or else a person was going to die. I wasn’t thinking too much about making it back or not but more about keeping the boy’s head above water. As he was pushing me under and I kept choking on saltwater, it did occur to me that if I didn’t change techniques it was quite possible I would drown myself. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. I kept going simply because I knew he would not make it back alive if I didn’t,” Johnson said, adding that he can’t imagine seeing someone in distress and not trying to help. “I am relieved that I was in the right place at the right time to be able to help out, and I’m extremely appreciative to scouting for giving me the training and confidence to be able to make the rescue. On the path to Eagle Scout, I was required to earn the Lifesaving merit badge where I learned the skills that I drew upon for this rescue. Without the scouting experience, there’s no telling how differently and tragically this situation would have turned out,” Johnson continued.

“I was not worried about not remembering the skills I had learned because in Scouts many of the drills we did intentionally involved not always having time to think too much and building the skills into your natural reactions. So, a lot of it came naturally after practicing so much in Scouts.”

Bill agreed that the training his son learned in Boy Scouts made a difference. “If he hadn’t been an Eagle Scout, he probably wouldn’t have known how to handle it,” he said.

Johnson said he is grateful to his parents for teaching him how to swim when he was a baby and giving him opportunities to be comfortable in all kinds of water. 

“I definitely recommend that everyone in our area learn basic swimming techniques because we have water all around us and this experience is a reminder that you just never know when you may be suddenly called on to use that swimming ability to assist somebody. If you are going to swim in the ocean, I would definitely recommend learning about rip currents and practicing navigating in strong surf. Knowing the basics of how to pull someone out of the water as well as keeping physically fit are invaluable. Those are some of the skills and ideals central to scouting. I would highly recommend that young people consider getting involved in an organization like scouting where they can learn lifesaving and many other skills while having a great time.” 

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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