A man thrown into chilly waters after a boat flipped crossing the treacherous Manukau Bar tried to swim for help, while his companion clung on to their dying friend as they waited in the water for more than two hours.
The Pukekohe fisherman who rescued the two men and their dead friend said they could have been dealing with more deaths if the men had been waiting in the water any longer.
Murray Kayes and his crew were heading to a new fishing spot near Manukau Peninsula when they spotted a plastic chair, a seat top, shoes and other floating debris just after midday on Saturday.
The 72-year-old, who was fishing with his friend and his 42-year-old son, carried on a further 150m into the harbour and spotted two men waving at them from the ocean.
The stricken pair were visible in their bright yellow life jackets, while the third man who had died was floating face down in the water without a life jacket.
"The boat sank straight away. They had actually tried to go out across the bar and realised they shouldn't have been there and tried to turn and it got them," Kayes said.
The first man they approached had been clinging on to the body of his dead friend, 56-year-old Joe Tetou Williams, and had turned blue in the face.
"The first chap we picked up. He had been holding on to the deceased until he passed away and he had hypothermia very badly."
Kayes and his crew grabbed the spare coats and towels they had on the boat and draped them over the larger man, in his 50s, to try to warm him up.
The younger survivor, in his late 30s, had been trying to swim for help, but had become disoriented and was swimming in the wrong direction. He was about 50m away from his friend when he was pulled into the boat.
"The second guy we pulled on board, he was quite a bit younger and very emotional about it as you would be, and then we attempted to retrieve the body."
The incoming tide and westerly winds caused the men to drift into the harbour which is where they were picked up.
Kayes called Coastguard and another boat arrived to help as they struggled to pull the body into the boat.
A police helicopter also flew over using the GPS co-ordinates to quickly locate them.
Kayes then drove the boat loaded with the two survivors and the body to Little Huia where they were met by emergency services. He estimated the rescue from picking up the first survivor to reaching shore took about 15 minutes.
The two survivors were treated by St John before being taken to Waitākere Hospital, while a Westpac Rescue Helicopter crew member pronounced the third man dead.
Kayes hoped to make contact with survivors to pass on their condolences.
"It was all pretty traumatic. My son is not handling it well so we are going to get counselling.
"Anything like that is stressful."
He was sure they would be dealing with multiple fatalities if his vessel had not arrived when it did.
Police Senior Sergeant Ross Hunter praised Kayes and his companions at the weekend for their professionalism and said he "couldn't thank them enough".
Police said Williams' death had been referred to the coroner.
The Manukau Bar has been dubbed one of New Zealand's most dangerous bars. In 2014, two people died and three were taken to hospital after their boat was swamped trying to cross it. The survivors also spent two hours in the water before they were rescued.
Tips for crossing a bar safely:
Seek local advice on the bar and channels
Check the weather, tide and bar conditions
Ensure your boat has adequate stability
Check your boat and make sure hatches and equipment are adequately secured
Make sure everybody is wearing a lifejacket and is awake
Ensure you are carrying two forms of communication that work even when wet
A call sign is vital for bar crossings to ensure positive identification and efficient communication
Source: Coastguard NZ