Treacherous surf at Coromandel beach nearly claims more lives in absence of guards.
A group of beachgoers scrambled to save four people from drowning at a notorious North Island beach just a couple of hours after voluntary lifeguards had finished their shift for the day.
The four people, understood to be of Chinese descent, were caught in a rip at Hot Water Beach about 6pm on Saturday.
Gary Hinds of the Trust Waikato Hot Water Beach lifeguard service said the group got into trouble in the surf, close to where dozens of people had dug hot water pools on the shore.
It is understood a group of locals spotted the visitors in trouble and swam out to haul them back in.
"They were getting smashed up against hot rock and then got sucked away from it by the rip," Mr Hinds said. "If [the rescuers] hadn't grabbed them when they did, one or two of them would definitely have drowned."
An ambulance was called, and a St John spokeswoman said three females, believed to be in their late teens or early 20s, and a man in his early 40s were taken to Thames Hospital, all in a moderate condition.
Mr Hinds said locals went to look for lifeguards after the group had been taken to hospital, but their 10am to 4pm shift had finished.
Voluntary members were at the nearby surf lifesaving club on a working bee.
While praising the efforts of locals, Mr Hinds said the issue highlighted a lack of funding. The service is seeking to get paid guards on the beach from December to April.
A recent bid for an extra $15,000 to extend patrolling to cover the whole tourist season was turned down by the Thames-Coromandel District Council late last year.
"We have been pushing for the last few years to get paid guards on the beach," said Mr Hinds.
Last year, the team at Hot Water Beach made 79 rescues, the third-highest rate in the country, he said. The previous year there were 110.
"This year we're about 70 already so we are going to probably end up somewhere between the two previous years."
The lifeguards at Hot Water Beach may be considered among some the most rescue-hardened in the country.
They each rack up more than 150 volunteer hours a season at the Coromandel Peninsula beach, more than double the hours of those at most other New Zealand beaches.