Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is a NZME. News Service journalist based in Auckland.

Former lifeguard: 'I had to help'

Helicopter pilot and former surf lifesaver Riley Massey on the wharf where he rescued a drowning man from Wellington Harbour. Photo / Mark MItchell
Helicopter pilot and former surf lifesaver Riley Massey on the wharf where he rescued a drowning man from Wellington Harbour. Photo / Mark MItchell

A former Piha surf lifeguard who stripped down to his boxers to rescue a drowning man from a cold harbour is among a handful of Wellingtonians whose bravery was recognised tonight.

Riley Massey, 36, received a Safety in the City Award from Wellington City Council after rescuing the man from Wellington Harbour in June.

The Helipro base manager, who grew up in Auckland, said his training as a lifeguard kicked in straight away. He had spent about a decade as a lifeguard at Piha, the notoriously dangerous west coast beach.

Mr Massey was in his office on Queens Wharf when workers from the office upstairs ran into the hangar and asked for help. He ran outside and saw a man struggling in the water near the wharf.

"He was probably about 20 metres out, I'd say. I was calling to him because it's sometimes hard to see the ladder ... I stood above one and was yelling at him to swim towards me, but it was apparent very quickly that he wasn't going to get there.

"He had no energy whatsoever and was barely able to respond, and I could see that he was struggling to stay above the water."

Mr Massey knew he had to help.

"I've had a lot of experience of that in the past and seen people in similar situations at Piha, and I knew that he wasn't going to get back to the wharf by himself.

"I had to help and so I just braved what I thought was going to be a pretty chilly jump in, and stripped off down to my boxers and jumped in."

Mr Massey said the adrenaline kicked in as he swam out to the man, in his late 30s, and brought him back towards the wharf.

He kept the man afloat by the wharf until a police boat arrived to rescue him.

"By that stage I thought, the sooner he got out, the better. It was a relief to see the police boat come around the corner."

Mr Massey said he didn't think about how cold he was until he got out of the water.

He took a hot shower at work while the man he rescued was treated for hypothermia in hospital.

Mr Massey said he would do it all again. "Of course you would. Anyone in that same situation would do the same thing."

Police officer Constable Toby Officer was also commended for rescuing a man who was struggling in wintry water.

He and surfer Campbell Read swam out to a man who was washed about 30m off Moa Point, on Wellington's south coast, last July.

The man was exhausted and had been struggling in the water for about 10 minutes before the pair brought him back in on Mr Read's surf board.

A humble Mr Officer brushed off his bravery, saying: "There was a guy in the drink who needed to be pulled out - that was about the extent of it. We had to get in there and get him out."

He conceded it was "certainly not an everyday experience".

Safety in the City Awards recognise people who have helped to save lives or who have worked tirelessly, often with little recognition, to keep Wellington safe.

Other recipients included a couple who helped an elderly woman stranded in the middle of the road during this year's big winter storm, residents who rescued neighbours from fires, a water safety advocate and a police volunteer.

The awards were presented by Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown and Wellington police area commander Chris Scahill.

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