Patrol shift over, then teenage lifesaver dies

Hamish was with two friends when a massive wave hit them on rocks near a blowhole about 7 o'clock last night. Photo / Supplied
Hamish was with two friends when a massive wave hit them on rocks near a blowhole about 7 o'clock last night. Photo / Supplied

Hamish Rieger spent his last lifeguard shift helping a 5-year-old with a bluebottle jellyfish sting and assisting a mate who had dislocated his shoulder to get out of the surf.

It was all in a day's work for the 17-year-old, who dedicated most of his spare time to the Mt Maunganui Lifeguard Service, for which he was a senior lifeguard.

But Hamish lost his life to the very sea that he spent his shifts scouring, after a massive wave swept him off rocks as he and two mates stood near a blowhole at Leisure Island, Mt Maunganui, yesterday evening.

After about 16 hours missing at sea, his body was spotted by a member of the public around 11am today, bringing some closure for his family.

Hamish's parents, Greg and Donna, later thanked everyone involved in the search for their son, including 150 surf club members.

"Getting him back means a huge amount to us; now we'd respectfully request space so we can concentrate on supporting each other through this time."

Lifeguard service president Brent Warner said its younger members were being supported.

"The Rieger family is hugely involved in our club and Hamish was a talented young lifeguard in his own right, who was on patrol earlier in the day," Mr Warner said.

"This is an extremely traumatic time for all club members, but we're doing all we possibly can to look after one of our lifeguarding families.

"To our members, those lifeguards from our fantastic neighbouring clubs and clubbies from further afield, you have made us all proud once more with your professionalism and dedication.

"To our community, we know you will be there for us, as we are for you."

Police and lifeguards, after the body was recovered. Photo / George Novak, Bay of Plenty Times
Police and lifeguards, after the body was recovered. Photo / George Novak, Bay of Plenty Times

Family spokesman Jamie Troughton said Hamish was someone who lived "life to the max every day".

"He's a great young kid. He was a unique kid. No one had a bad thing to say about him.

"Yesterday, Hamish worked a full shift as a lifeguard and helped to treat a 5-year-old who had been stung by a bluebottle jellyfish."

A mate of Hamish's, who did not want to be named, said he also helped a friend out of the water on Saturday who had suffered a dislocated shoulder.

"Things haven't sunken in yet. It's unreal."

The pair had been in the same water polo team since Year 7, and he said Hamish loved keeping fit.

"He was a bit of a fitness freak, really. For the past two years, he's been on this massive buzz and running and stuff like that. He did surf lifesaving but he didn't compete. As a senior, he just volunteered at every event, which I think is pretty massive. That's something that we'll always remember Hamish for - that he was the biggest volunteer, he always lent a hand."

Mate Jonah Dobson described Hamish as "one of my closest, most trusted friends". He loved the beach. "He's a universally-liked guy and there was never a dull moment with him around," Jonah told the Herald.

Allan Mundy says everyone at the surf club is "completely gutted" by Hamish's death. Photo / George Novak, Bay of Plenty Times
Allan Mundy says everyone at the surf club is "completely gutted" by Hamish's death. Photo / George Novak, Bay of Plenty Times

In a heartfelt post on its Facebook page, the Mt Maunganui Lifeguard Service paid tribute to Hamish: "It's with aching, weeping hearts we farewell one of our members. Our beautiful ocean can be a cruel mistress but at least she gave Hamish back to us today.

"To the Rieger clan, who have contributed so much to our club and our movement over the years, we offer our total, unconditional love and support."

Surf Life Saving New Zealand lifesaving manager Allan Mundy said everybody at the surf club was "completely gutted" by the loss of Hamish.

"He had only just come off patrolling that day. The irony is awful."

Mr Mundy urged beachgoers to be cautious as large waves were set to continue at the Mount for up to 10 days, peaking on Wednesday with a 3-and-a-half-metre swell.

Inspector Karl Wright-St Clair, acting area commander for Western Bay police, said Hamish and his family have contributed a great deal to the community through their service to surf lifesaving.

"Our thoughts are with the family at this difficult time."

An estimated 150 surf club members searched for Hamish. Photo / George Novak, Bay of Plenty Times
An estimated 150 surf club members searched for Hamish. Photo / George Novak, Bay of Plenty Times

On Facebook, Jonah Dobson wrote that he couldn't believe his mate had gone.

"You're one of my best friends, and now you're gone and I don't know what to do.

"You were a credit to everyone you met, Ham. The guy you could trust to make you laugh in the worst of situations, the guy you could talk about anything to and the guy who was always up for the challenge.

"I saw you just a few hours beforehand and I remember the last thing I said to you, and you me. And although I'm overcome with just pain and sadness that I'll never get another chance to talk to you, I'm glad that I had one more chance to have some quality banter, mate.

"Rest In Peace, Hamish. My thoughts go out to your family and everyone else who appreciates what we've lost. I miss you, man."

Hamish went to Mt Maunganui Primary School before moving on to Mt Maunganui Intermediate and then Mt Maunganui College.

Local woman Erica Devoy was on Leisure Island with her husband and two children when Hamish was swept away.

The waves were "so aggressive" the family decided to walk out to the end of the island after dinner to watch them crash against the rocks.

Photo / George Novak, Bay of Plenty Times
Photo / George Novak, Bay of Plenty Times

Others were on the island doing the same thing, including Hamish's group of three, who were standing on the rocks near the blowhole.

"They were challenging the waves. The waves were coming, there was no way it was going to reach them," she said.

Then a particularly big wave came through and the water swept up around their feet.

"I said to my husband, 'We should say something to them'... This big wave came up and it looked fine but then the back of the wave hit and they were just completely covered. When it went back, there were only two boys."

Mrs Devoy said the drop off the front of the rock where Hamish would have fallen was about 2m.

"The two boys came up. They were crying. They were in shock," she said.

Her husband tried to peer down to make sure Hamish wasn't stuck. Others called 111.

"It's insane that an innocent wave just took him. They were boys being boys.

"I just wish I'd said something. It's quite sad. It's just crazy."

- NZ Herald

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