Three inexperienced surfers are counting their lucky starfish after getting caught in a rip and being sucked out to sea yesterday.

It was a close call for the University of Otago students who got into trouble off Smaills Beach, Dunedin, about 9.45am.

One of the trio managed to scramble on to rocks after drifting back into shore before traversing the rocky headland and raising the alarm about 10.05am. The other two were in the water for about half an hour before climbing on to a large rock off Maori Head and waiting about an hour-and-a-half for rescue.

Police and Marine Search and Rescue staff at the beach made the call to get the Otago Regional Rescue Helicopter on scene as the 3m-4m swells and the strong current were too dangerous for an inflatable rescue boat.

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The rescued pair were shaken but unhurt. They did not know the fate of their friend Max Richard, 21, of Maine in the United States, who raised the alarm, until they got off the helicopter.

"We were really worried because we saw his board wash up broken," said rescued surfer Tahu Nikora, 20, following the ordeal.

He embraced Richard upon seeing him alive and unscathed.

"It was my fault. I shouldn't have taken them in there."

Nikora had taken university exchange students Theo Montel, 20, of Sweden, and Richard surfing at Aramoana on Wednesday and planned to surf again yesterday.

Richard said he did not see his friends for a long time so he called emergency services.

"We didn't know how dangerous it was."

Senior Constable Nick Wells, of Dunedin, said the men had "done everything right" when they got into trouble but it was important to know the conditions and safe areas to surf before entering the ocean.