The panic began to set in for Donald McCorquindale when he realised he couldn't get back to shore on his own.

The waves were big and a strong wind was up, it was blowing the 59-year-old further and further out.

McCorquindale couldn't touch the bottom and he was starting to feel tired.

Each time a new wave approached, he tried to catch it in – only to slip off the back.

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"And that's when I realised I was in trouble."

Yesterday, McCorquindale was back at Mount Maunganui Main Beach, looking out at where it all went wrong.

He was there to meet his rescuer – 13-year-old Ian Pugh – who he hadn't had a chance to thank.

The Tauranga teenager is not yet old enough to become an official lifeguard and has had just two months of surf lifesaving training.

But instinct overcame inexperience last Friday.

McCorquindale was out for a body-board with his son and a friend from Matamata.

The dairy farmer of 34 years, who recently left his farm and shifted to Cambridge, said he has been holidaying in Mount Maunganui, and swimming at Main Beach, for more than 10 years. He had never had any issues before.

McCorquindale said the wind was blowing offshore last Friday and some of the bigger waves – "the nicest ones to catch" – were a bit further out.

He said before he realised it, he couldn't touch the sand any more.

"And then the wind that was blowing us took us further back and it wasn't long before I realised that I couldn't catch the waves back in."

McCorquindale told his friend and fellow body-boarder, Cameron Houghton, that he was in trouble and they both tried to swim back to shore, but failed.

They then attempted another method.

McCorquindale grabbed hold of Houghton's foot, "and he was swimming and I was kicking and then a wave split us in half".

"I was panicking at that stage and, because I'd tried to get in, I was running out of puff, you know, and that was the scary part," McCorquindale said.

It was around this time that Houghton managed to get the attention of Ian Pugh, who had just finished a surf lifesaving training session and was heading out to catch a few waves.

Donald McCorquindale catches up wth his rescuer Ian Pugh, 13, at Mount Manganui Main Beach. Photo / Andrew Warner
Donald McCorquindale catches up wth his rescuer Ian Pugh, 13, at Mount Manganui Main Beach. Photo / Andrew Warner

Pugh said yesterday: "They were out quite far and the waves kept breaking on them and they were getting pushed along towards the rocks.

"And there was a rip so I just thought I should go and have a look and see if they're all right."

He gave McCorquindale his long kneeboard and took the body-board in return.

After a few failed attempts to steady himself, McCorquindale managed to get on the kneeboard and was then guided and pushed through the shorebreak.

He was met by a couple of senior lifeguards and Pugh's coaches, who helped him back to the beach.

McCorquindale said he felt a sense of relief as his feet touched down on the sand again.

Looking back, he said all common sense went out the window.

"You do try to get back on your own ... because I had another guy there with me, I was hoping we could get through it. But we couldn't."

Pugh, who plans on becoming a lifeguard when he turns 14, has been playing down the rescue and spoke sparingly and humbly about it yesterday.

"It's just keeping people safe, I guess," he said quietly at one point when asked about his motivation.

The Bethlehem College student appeared reluctant to be the centre of attention, but has nevertheless been receiving plenty of praise from his coaches and senior lifeguards.

One of them, who was on the beach at the time and quickly ran to assist, yesterday spoke of Pugh's natural ability and great potential.

"By the time we were there, Ian had basically taken over and already helped out," Hamish Miller said.

"Ian did an awesome job ... he knew exactly what to do."

Meanwhile, McCorquindale said yesterday that he had not been back in the water since the rescue. He was planning on doing so soon, he said, but it would be between the flags this time.


Drowning statistics

The preventable fatal drowning toll for the official holiday period was four, according to the latest Water Safety New Zealand figures.

That is half of last year's toll for the same period (4pm, December 24 to 6am, January 3).

Water Safety New Zealand chief executive Jonty Mills said it had been another holiday period of record rescues and callouts "which indicates the toll could have easily been much worse".

While encouraged by the latest figures, Mills said one preventable drowning was one too many, and was a tragedy for all families and communities involved.