Auckland surf lifesavers awarded one of their association's highest honours say the incident that earned them the accolade was a rescuer's nightmare.
Logan Adams, 26, and Kris O'Neill - a veteran who has been patrolling beaches for 13 years - were part of group of 10 from the Piha Surf Life Saving Club recognised with the BP Surf Rescue of the Year title at a black-tie event in Wellington last week.
Surf Life Saving New Zealand says quick thinking and teamwork averted multiple drownings on February 10.
Large crowds had travelled to the west coast beach and kept Mr O'Neill, who was on flag duty, busy during his 10-hour shift.
He was due to finish about 6pm when he was called from the club by Mr Adams, who thought he could see people's heads by Lion Rock, the opposite end to where he was patrolling.
It was at the time of evening when surf lifesavers have to stare directly into the sun and seeing people in the water is difficult.
"Just seeing a swimmer's head is a nightmare," Mr Adams said.
"When you rescue surfers at least you've got that comfort that they've got their board, but swimmers without anything to keep them above water - it's scary."
Four Asian tourists believed to be in their 20s had waded into deeper water but quickly got caught in a rip and choppy 1.5m waves.
Mr O'Neill swam out because the inflatable boat used by the lifesavers was battling to break out into the open water.
"You can imagine at low tide there's no peeling wave so it just slams down so the boat can't get there.
"They were trying for five to 10 minutes just to get out the back without flipping the boat."
Battling the glare, he glimpsed one swimmer sinking.
"I swam along the bottom, grabbed and pulled him up ... He was pretty screwed and he just got pulled behind me."
He got to two others, while another lifesaver picked up the fourth man.
Waiting for the boat to pick them all up, and trying to keep his charges afloat was one of the hardest things he has had to do in the job.
"They were small guys but when they're unconscious it's like dragging a wet blanket behind you."
They never heard from the young men after the rescue but the award meant something simple - people lived, Mr O'Neill said.
"It's a pretty fine line. That's why rescues like this one - we get real worked up about it because swimmers sink and die really quickly. It turns into a massive three days of work to recover the body. We're pretty stoked when we manage to get them all."By Yvonne Tahana Email Yvonne