As the high sun glistens off the rippling blue sea, a family looks out and waits.

Dog-walkers stride briskly while the occasional jet ski or small boat skims across whitecaps and an otherwise stunning view.

Fishermen cast into the same water where 14-year-old Jack Sutton was last seen.

Friends and family of the schoolboy sit under a white gazebo on camp chairs and beanbags. A man strums a guitar. Waiting is all they can do.

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It's been three days since Jack went for a swim with a mate, taking advantage of the warm weather and bath-like sea temperatures on a teachers-only day. He has not been seen since.

"I'm just trying to channel my energy into bringing my boy home," says mum Sue Sutton.

The boy's loved ones have barely left Scarborough Beach in Christchurch's peaceful seaside community of Sumner since Monday afternoon.

The nightmare began when police officers knocked on the front door of the family's home in the eastern suburb of Linwood at 4pm.

They were told that as Jack and his friend were swimming to shore in the water, chopped up by a strong nor'westerly, Jack disappeared.

His mate rushed to shore and raised the alarm around 3.20pm.

Distraught family members arrived at the beach soon after where a large rescue effort, with Coastguard and Sumner Surf Life Saving Club, was under way.

After about 90 minutes, police suspended the search as the wind picked up.

But the family of the missing boy were frustrated and angered that the official search was called off so soon.

"We're pretty pissed off. Why aren't they out there looking for him?" said a friend that evening.

They launched their own effort, clambering over the rocks of Scarborough Heads and scouring the beach and shoreline, all night, and ever since.

"I'm not going home until he's home," said elder sister Magenta Sutton on Monday evening.

The following day, a boatie took them out on the water, searching around Scarborough, to neighbouring Taylors Mistake, and to Godley Heads.

Locals on kayaks and jetskis have chipped in to help.

Even Crusaders rugby coach and local resident Scott Robertson joined the hunt.

"We can't thank the Sumner people enough for the marvellous things they have done," the boy's nana said today.

Police said on Tuesday night that it was now a body recovery operation.

A Givealittle crowdfunding campaign launched to raise cash to put a light aircraft up to help look for Sutton has so far raised nearly $8000.

"It's a bit of a shock to the family," said Magenta.

She described her brother as a "great swimmer" who usually swam at the closer New Brighton Beach. She didn't know why he went to Sumner instead.

Linwood College principal Richard Edmundson said counselling was available to pupils affected by the tragedy, which has shocked the school, he said.

"There was the full range of emotions depending on how well the other kids knew Jack. Everybody is affected to a degree where all schools are a community," Edmundson said.

A specialist Ministry of Education team is ensuring that pupils and staff get the support they need, he added.

Water Safety NZ chief executive Jonty Mills warned that while water is New Zealand's playground, it is "incredibly unforgiving and situations can develop quickly, often with tragic and fatal consequences".

There were 88 preventable drownings in New Zealand last year.

"Every preventable drowning leaves a family and a community devastated," Mills said.

"When you are at the beach if you can, swim between the flags - there has never been a drowning fatality between the flags on a patrolled beach in New Zealand. If you are swimming on an unpatrolled beach find out about the local conditions and if in doubt, stay out.

"Always remember the water safety code: Be prepared, watch out for yourself and others, be aware of the dangers and know your limits."

Alongside the gazebo are a small campervan and caravan. The family say they will keep up their seaside vigil until Jack returns home.

The nights are very peaceful by the ocean, said his mother Sue.

But she just wants her boy home.