From champion surf lifesaver to navy sailor

Royal New Zealand Navy Ordinary Seaman Ben Johnston at his graduation from Basic Common Training with his great-grandfather, Second World War veteran and former Chief Petty Officer Jim Blackburn, 92.

Former world-class surf lifesaving champion Ben Johnston used his sport’s leadership and fitness training to help him graduate as a sailor.

The 22-year-old ordinary seaman from Tauranga, graduated recently from the Royal New Zealand Navy’s first Basic Common Training intake of the year.

After 16 weeks of 5am starts and rigorous training and discipline, he is on track to learn a new trade as an electrical technician with the RNZN.

“Surf lifesaving, being a lifeguard, and having a good fitness level definitely helped,” he says.

“I used to train two to three times a day, six days a week for my sport – swimming and running.

“And having had a leadership role in surf lifesaving teams and with my local surf lifesaving clubs helped too. I was able to use that leadership training on the course to help others.”

He was impressed with the level of teamwork required to get through the course.

“You don’t get through basic training without team work. A lot of time is spent in the first few weeks developing that in high-stress activities, where we need to help each other to get through.

“We learn we are there for each other, as well as ourselves.”

Ordinary seaman Johnston started surf lifesaving when he was four and from 15 years competed in national and international competitions.

At 16 he was part of a victorious New Zealand under-20 team at the World Surf Lifesaving Championships and he has had many successes as part of the national squad.

Now he is relishing a fresh start in something he has never done before.

“My teen years were very focused on surf lifesaving and sport, and I was looking for something new and exciting to do to kick-start me again.”

His parents were excited about his decision to join the RNZN and he has had plenty of support from his brother, other family members and friends.

However, it’s his great-grandfather, Second World War veteran and former chief petty officer Jim Blackburn, 92, who probably has had the most satisfaction from ordinary seaman Johnston’s decision to join.

“A lot of my decision was because of him and he’s stoked with my decision,” says ordinary seaman Johnston.

“He had hoped someone in the family would join the forces at some point.”

“He’s a quiet man, but he has a lot of stories to tell. That’s what interested me most in joining the Navy – stories of what he had done.”

A recent video tour of the RNZN’s new dive support and hydrography vessel HMNZS Manawanui was an eye-opener.

“It was good to see such a big new ship and it was exciting to know more about what they are training us for,” he says.

“It helped us see how our trade fits in – it’s great to be in a modern trade in electrical and digital technology for the future.

He is also excited about the opportunities ahead in his new career.

“We’ve heard from people who have gone around the world with the Navy, and with the new ships and the new technology coming on stream, there is lots more for us to do.”

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