Whakatane police officer and former Bay of Plenty Steamer Constable Dean Oswald stripped down to his underwear to rescue three young swimmers stuck in a rip in Ohope.
Mr Oswald was on duty as part of an Ohope summer patrol on Wednesday night.
Just before 8pm, he and his two colleagues were about to finish work when they were notified three people were stuck in a rip opposite the Ohope Golf Club. As there was no easy beach access nearby, Mr Oswald got hold of a quad bike and raced along the beach.
"I headed towards the Ohiwa Harbour mouth. It must have been about 500m to 1km when I came across an upset man and an aunty who were pointing and saying `my boys, my boys'. I jumped on top of the bike and could see a hand up in the water so I stripped down to my jocks and jumped in.''
Mr Oswald said the people on the beach had called other family members and two relatives came down to the beach with lifejackets. They followed Mr Oswald into the surf.
"The closest kid was about 40m out and it was quite a rough sea. At that point, I'd only seen the two kids and didn't realise their uncle was in the water as well. The three of us headed into the water, we got to the first kid, gave him a life jacket and strapped him in it. The other two were behind me and got to the other boy. The kid I was with kept saying 'my uncle, my uncle', that's when I realised there was a man out there.''
Mr Oswald said the man was "pretty much face-up'' and wasn't in a good way.
"I handed the kid over to the other two. I basically just went out to the other man who was in a state, he wasn't responding to me at all. He wasn't dead, but any longer and he would not have been a happy chappy.''
When Mr Oswald managed to get the man back to the beach, he was sick and brought up a lot of sea water.
"The kids had gone out for a swim and were caught in a rip for about 20 minutes. They realised they weren't getting anywhere and their uncle went in to get them and they all just got separated _ it all just went pear-shaped. The two family members that helped out, it was good of them to come out.''
The Whakatane Coastguard and a local helicopter operator assisted at the scene and the three were airlifted to Whakatane Hospital.
Mr Oswald said it was just one of those unfortunate things that can happen. He visited the people rescued while they were in hospital and said he was greeted by a hug from the uncle and was also thanked by the two boys.
As well as being a Bay of Plenty Steamer from 1986 to 1997, Mr Oswald has been involved in Surf Lifesaving since childhood.
Acting Senior Sergeant Steve Collins said Mr Oswald did an awesome job.
"We're fairly certain that his actions have saved somebody's life. I think it's brilliant what he's done. He put himself in danger's way to save these people.''
Whakatane Hospital communications manager Diana Marriott said three people had been airlifted to the hospital after near drownings at Ohope. A 36-year-old Hastings man and an 11-year-old boy from Christchurch were both treated and discharged that night, while a 13-year-old boy from Manurewa was admitted and discharged yesterday.