A young fisherman was rescued from treacherous surf by frantic relatives on boogie boards yesterday, but the man's brother and brother-in-law died in one of the worst drowning tragedies of the summer.
A relative of one of the drowned men said he arrived at the beach, north of Maunganui Bluff, north-west of Dargaville, about 40 minutes after the alarm was raised early yesterday afternoon.
He discovered a frantic scene, as about 20 relatives mounted a rescue attempt on boogie boards.
"People were running around mad, really," said the witness, who declined to be named.
Some used boogie boards to try to reach the trio, one of whom was still waving for help when the witness arrived. Others climbed steep hills around the beach to act as spotters, he said.
Coastguard and Northland Emergency Rescue Helicopter joined the operation, but were hampered by stormy conditions.
Family members managed to rescue the distressed man, who was still conscious, but "not well" when he was brought to shore.
A second man was also rescued by those on boogie boards, with CPR attempted before emergency services arrived. He could not be revived. The survivor was flown by Northland Emergency Rescue Helicopter to Whangarei Hospital where he was in a critical condition.
The body of the third man, a brother-in-law, had not been found last night.
Coastguard Georgie Smith said they were alerted at 1pm by a beach resident who saw the men swept into the ocean.
"Conditions made it incredibly difficult to reach the victims with two of the fisherman drifting into the land and the other later spotted in the breakers by the rescue helicopter. Sadly one of the men who drifted ashore is now deceased."
Kaihu Tavern publican Grant Wikaira often collects shellfish from the coastline, but rarely sees people in the water.
"It's a west coast beach, big waves come in. You've just got to be very careful. One minute the water's at your knees, the next it's up over your head."
A resident in Aranga, about 8km from the scene of the drownings, described the beach on the northern side of Maunganui Bluff as "very, very isolated".
There was no road, with the only access over Maori land.
However, the beach was popular with locals, she said.
In August last year, a 14-year-old boy drowned at Maunganui Bluff.
Meanwhile, three young boogie-boarders and their father were rescued after being caught in a rip at Mokau Beach, north of New Plymouth, yesterday.
A 15-year-old male was flown to New Plymouth hospital in a serious condition after the incident.