Eighteen schoolgirl rowers and two adult coaches were plucked from the "freezing" waters of Auckland's Waitemata Harbour yesterday afternoon after massive waves swamped their boats.
Escorted to waiting ambulances blue-lipped and shivering, the teenagers from Westlake Girls High School said they spent between 15 and 30 minutes in the water without lifejackets as they awaited rescue.
"We sank and the waves were so big, and it was really scary," one told the Herald on Sunday, as she and two of her team-mates reached dry land.
The two experienced teams, each with eight rowers and a cox, set out from Greenhithe on a training run, with their coaches in an accompanying dinghy.
What was supposed to be a 30-minute "hard row" towards the Harbour Bridge and back almost ended in disaster when huge waves struck on the return leg.
"It started getting choppy and the boats got swamped," said 15-year-old Shanice Duggan-Keefe.
Some girls spent longer in the water than others and although they hadn't feared for their lives, some were "freezing".
They gathered at a shed near the Greenhithe jetty to be counted, as they were dropped off from various vessels in groups of twos and threes.
All three emergency services and the Coastguard were called to the rescue.
Gordon Pengelly, father of one of the rowers, was among those to help the rescue effort.
The lifeguard of 30 years was driving past when he spotted "a little dot" in the water - one of his daughter's team-mates. "I've a fisherman friend and he was pulling his boat up. I said, 'come on let's go'."
Coach Catherine Sharpley said she's never had one boat swamped, let alone three, in 15 years of rowing.
She said all the girls were experienced rowers who had been training for three years. "The coaches and the girls did exactly what they were trained to do, all the correct safety procedures were followed."
Water Safety New Zealand chief executive Matt Claridge said the girls were not required to have life jackets.
"While all craft are required by maritime law to carry correctly fitting life jackets for each person, there are exemptions for sport."