Construction workers and a lifeguard from a nearby swimming pool ran to the aid of a man in trouble in the ocean off Marine Parade yesterday afternoon.
However, they were not quick enough, as the man drowned in the high swells about 3pm.
Ocean Spa lifeguard Amy Giddens said she had never seen or experienced anything like that before.
"I heard a man in the gym yell out 'someone is drowning', so I raced and got a rope and headed straight to the beach."
Her workmate, Kirsten, was already knee deep in the water.
"I gave her the end of the rope but it was too short to reach him. The waves were also dumping and sucking us back to shore."
"At that point it looked as if he was already gone as he wasn't struggling to stay afloat."
It was the construction workers at the Napier War Memorial Conference Centre, however, who were first to spot the man, as they saw something floating in the water.
A worker, who did not want to be named, said they initially thought the man was diving but as they came down the steps they heard a woman scream and saw her run towards the water.
"As we got closer she yelled for help so I called 111 and was asked to stay on the line until emergency services got there."
Wez Jardine who was also working on the construction site said he climbed down the scaffolding to assist the woman.
"She was standing by herself so I came down and sat next to her for 5-7 minutes until emergency services arrived. She said she heard the man scream in the water and was beside herself, in complete disbelief."
The worker, who did not want to be named, said the man had drifted a distance of 150m to 200m.
The Lowe Corporation Rescue Helicopter responded to the call out, and on arrival the man was dead and about 20m off shore.
"The rescue swimmer was deployed from the helicopter to recover the body and both were winched into the helicopter and transported back to Hawke's Bay Hospital."
Ms Giddens said it all happened so quickly but felt there needed to be signs warning people not to swim there.
"This beach area here is so dangerous and the undertow is so strong."
Luke and Jess McLean had just arrived from Brisbane on a cruise when they came across the scene.
"We only hopped off to get an icecream and then we saw the chopper and a body floating in the water. It was pretty crazy," Luke McLean said.
"I felt like bringing up my icecream after that, it was very intense. The woman on the beach was wailing."
A police spokeswoman said last night that formal identification had not yet taken place, nor next-of-kin notification.
"The death is not suspicious and the body will now be referred to the coroner."