Wayne Browne went into the water for a body surf at Omaha Beach a fit and healthy man, but moments later was paralysed after a "real freak accident" broke his neck.
The 53-year-old Auckland lawyer died last week. He had spent more than a month in intensive care after being pulled from the surf by his partner, Jo Watson, in the February incident.
His family, including Ms Watson and Wayne's twin brother, Scott Browne, have been left devastated by the death of the "rugby head".
"You don't expect people to go swimming and not come home," Scott said. Just before Christmas, Mr Browne and Ms Watson bought a bach at Omaha, north of Auckland, and were spending the weekend there when he was injured in what Scott described as a "real freak accident".
Wayne stepped into a hole under the surf just as a wave broke on top of him, forcing him under the waist-deep swell and breaking his neck. It was a week before his 53rd birthday.
He was paralysed from the waist down and knocked unconscious. Ms Watson pulled him from the water. Lifeguards competing in the Northern Regional Surf Championships up the beach were quickly on the scene and did all they could before Mr Browne was airlifted to Middlemore Hospital.
"He was in intensive care for about six weeks and [medical staff] were expecting to see some movement coming back but when they didn't see that, they started doing brain scans and found evidence of some brain damage," Scott said.
"And then it all went downhill pretty quickly over the next week. It became pretty obvious that he wasn't going to recover."
Last Sunday, the family including Scott and his younger sisters Annemarie and Susan, gathered by Wayne's hospital bed and sat with him until he died about 4am on Monday, April 4.
"He was so suddenly taken away. He literally went from being a fit and healthy man when he went into the water to being completely paralysed when he came out."
Ms Watson was struggling to come to terms with the death of her partner of more than 25 years, Scott said.
Wayne's funeral at St Patrick's Cathedral on Friday was packed with more than 900 people and the law firm, Simpson Grierson, where he was a partner and worked for 18 years, has paid tribute to him on its website.
"His team will miss his intellect, passion and dedication to the law, exceptional mentoring skills, unwavering support, and commitment to being available whenever needed," the tribute read.
"His cheeky smile and sense of humour will be missed together with his easy going nature that created so many long-lasting friendships."
Wayne played rugby for the Takapuna Turtles for 30 years and was to run out on the field this year too.
Blues hooker James Parsons, leading the team following the injury to regular captain Jerome Kaino, sent a message of support to Wayne's family in a television interview following the Blues' 29-23 defeat to the Chiefs in Hamilton on Friday.
"They're going through a tough time and are a big rugby family," Parsons said.
"It was so sudden. It puts things in perspective a bit. You don't know how long you've got here and you have to just enjoy it while you can."