Three swimmers are lucky to be alive after a group of teens went to their rescue during a frenzied, hour-long effort in ferocious Hawke's Bay seas at the weekend.
The current was so strong and waves so powerful at Waipatiki Beach on Saturday afternoon that it took 45 minutes for the group of Napier teenagers to swim 250m to reach the three female swimmers - one so close to drowning she was losing consciousness.
The youths were sitting on the beach about 4pm when they were alerted to the trouble.
"A girl came over from the other end of the beach, and we were sitting there in a group of about 10 of us, and she goes, 'Are any of you good swimmers because some girls are drowning'?" said Callum Williams, 15.
Hawke's Bay police Senior Sergeant Mike Stevenson said a 21-year-old woman had been carried 250m offshore in a rip, and her two younger cousins, one aged 16 and the other about 12, had also got into trouble trying to help her.
Lucan Battison, 14, said, "The waves were just huge, and there was a huge, big swell. You dived under the waves to go out and they just pushed you back in."
Lucan had swum out and reached the youngest girl first, while Callum had continued out to where the oldest was struggling.
"Everyone was pointing the direction where to go and she was way, way out past the breakwater," said Callum. "So I just kept on going and it took ages to get out there and I was getting really tired."
Daniel Troy, 17, and his brother Kris, 15, helped Lucan bring the young girl into shore.
"She was in a bit of shock and everyone was covering her in towels to keep her warm," said Lucan. "Even walking back in everyone was just struggling to stand because the current was so strong."
As time went on, the boys described panic on the beach as the girls' family watched in horror and other beachgoers began to step in. A kayaker, Andrew White, and an unidentified surfer were helped by the boys to navigate the unrelenting surf and managed to take a lifejacket to the second girl.
"He (Mr White) flipped a couple of times, so we helped him back in and he went where the second girl was and gave her his lifejacket," said Nick Roydhouse, 17.
Nick and another youth, Izaiah Lange, 15, helped bring the 16-year-old to shore where she was cared for by onlookers.
When Callum reached the 21-year-old she was coughing up water and struggling to stay afloat, he said.
"I saw her face when I got carried up by a wave and she was going under the water and spewing up water. So I put her arm around my shoulder and kept saying, 'Breathe, breathe ... it's going to be OK ... I'm here'.
"Then I slowly started dragging her into shore, but I was really tired and she kept kind of dropping her head down into the water. I was thinking, 'What have I got myself into'? But I didn't have any option but to keep going."
The two had to navigate under waves, and were dragged back by cotton clothing the woman was wearing.
"The waves were absolutely smashing us and I kept saying '3, 2, 1' and then she'd hold her breath to go under the waves. I was just trying to talk to her and ask her questions to keep her conscious and just as I was getting into the breakwater this surfboarder came along."
The surfer was helped by the boys to lift the girl on to his board and wrap a lifejacket around her and carry her into shore.
"She was pretty much unconscious and we all put her on a surfboard and pushed her in," said Lucan.
"Callum could hardly walk either. He was so tired," said Kris.
Callum's mother, Cushla Williams, an off-duty nurse, treated the 21-year-old woman while other beachgoers loaded a trailer with boogie boards and towels to transport the girls to the Battisons' batch.
Holidaying doctors also rushed to the bach and helped treat the girls, covering them in mattresses and towels for warmth while an ambulance and rescue helicopter were called.
The 21-year-old was flown by Lowe Corporation Rescue Helicopter and her 16-year-old cousin was transported by St John Ambulance to Hawke's Bay Hospital for treatment. Both girls were discharged yesterday afternoon.
Mr Stevenson said the teenagers' actions were admirable in such a dangerous situation.
"This story could have ended tragically but some heroic efforts have prevented that from occurring."