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‘Pure terror’ on a P.E.I. beach

Beth Johnston and her son, Charlie Ross, are shown on the beach in Savage Harbour Monday where they had the fright of their lives Saturday evening after getting caught in a rip current.
Beth Johnston and her son, Charlie Ross, are shown on the beach in Savage Harbour Monday where they had the fright of their lives Saturday evening after getting caught in a rip current.

SAVAGE HARBOUR, P.E.I. – One minute, Beth Johnston was enjoying “a perfect moment’’ swimming with her son just off a north shore beach in Savage Harbour.

“Then within a minute,’’ says Johnston, “it was pure terror.’’

The pair had been splashing in the waves Saturday around 8 p.m., snapping photos with a sports underwater camera.

After just a handful of minutes in the water, however, Johnston’s 12-year-old son, Charlie Ross, who had been standing on a sand bar, noted he could no longer touch bottom.

Johnston realized she and her son had been pulled out “far enough that the shore looked really far away.’’

Mom and son were caught in a rip current. Suddenly the pair was in peril.

Returning to shore appeared a mighty, even uncertain, task.

To Johnston, Charlie looked terrified.

She recalls her boy saying, “Mommy, I’m so tired. I can’t swim.”

Johnston told her son to keep pushing. He found the resolve.

And he swam for his life.

“I don’t know how he did it, but somehow the kid swam to shore…I’m really proud of him,’’ says Johnston.

“He really handled himself well. If he had lost his cool, it would have been another situation.’’

On Monday, a well-spoken Charlie conveyed to The Guardian his horror of being caught in a rip current far from shore.

“It was frightening, and I did feel like I was never going to make it back to shore…it was kind of an awful feeling,’’ he says.

“The next day I felt like I ran a marathon…it was pretty tiring.’’

Most unsettling for the boy was watching his mother struggling in the water once he had safely reached shore.

“I thought she was not going to come back to shore,’’ he says.

“I was thinking, you know how people are in the obituaries? I thought, ‘oh no, I am going to see her in the obituaries tomorrow.’ ’’

Johnston says the struggle to return to shore – roughly 20 minutes for Charlie and another 10 minutes or so for her – felt like an eternity.

For Johnston, 45, a writer and photographer for the province, the fact that she is a strong swimmer who took to the water early in life did not seem for a disturbing period of time to be enough to help escape her plight.

Johnston’s fatigue had become simply overwhelming. She was beginning to feel she was no match for the unrelenting current.

Yet like her son, she somehow found her way back to the shore.

“I don’t know what happened or how I got out of that current,’’ she says.

The reunion on the beach, needless to say, was emotional.

“He was so upset and crying,’’ says Johnston of her son.

“I just hugged him, and we were both shaking. I just said, ‘we’re OK, we’re OK. I’m sorry, that was so scary.’ ’’

Johnston’s heart goes out to the 52-year-old New Brunswick man who drowned in strong currents and rough waves in the waters off St. Margarets Saturday afternoon.

“I know where his heart and mind was because I was experiencing the same terror,’’ she says.

“That’s how easily things can go wrong. You realize how fragile you are.’’

Respect for
rip currents

Parks Canada offers the following advice on respecting the water.

– All swimmers are encouraged to use supervised swimming areas and check surf conditions daily.

– If caught in a rip current, which is a powerful seaward current that can pull even the strongest swimmers out to sea, don’t fight the current, swim out of the current and then to shore. If you can’t escape, float or tread water. If you need help, call or wave for assistance.

What should you do if you're caught in a rip current? First - don't panic.

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