Andrew Massey was in his element, diving under the waves, bobbing up and down in the ocean, when he turned to give son a happy, hearty wave.

It was the last time William Massey saw his father alive.

Andrew - known to everyone as Nobby - was holidaying from the coastal England town of Hythe when he took a fatal dip at one of New Zealand's east coast surf beaches in Tairua.

At first, William thought his father was just doing what he always did - floating under the water for a moment and letting the waves roll over his back, being one with the ocean.

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Āndrew Massey with his grandson.
Āndrew Massey with his grandson.

But this time was different. This time, 68-year-old Nobby dived under a wave and didn't resurface.

His death has been referred to the Coroner. A preliminary post mortem report has indicated it was heart-related.

Nobby and wife Julie arrived in New Zealand on February 22 for a month's holiday.

They were staying with William and his fiance Claudia, who were living with close friends Alison Smith and Devan Rowe in Tairua.

William, Alison and Devan surfed at Ocean Beach on Saturday morning but Nobby stayed on land as the high tide made swimming treacherous.

Alison, NZME's editor of Coastal News and the Waihi Leader, said by 5.30pm it was low tide and much safer.

"There were no obvious rips."

Alison, Devan and William surfed, while Nobby, a confident swimmer, took a dip.

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The group was in the water for about 20 minutes when William threw Nobby a thumbs-up from his surfboard to check he was okay.

"He was happy and full of beans, bobbing around in the water and diving under the waves," William said.

Andrew Massey and son William Massey. Photo / Supplied
Andrew Massey and son William Massey. Photo / Supplied

But when he looked back a moment later, he saw his father dive under a wave and not resurface.

"I thought maybe he was mucking around and then he didn't come up," he said.

Panicked, William paddled towards his father and pulled his head above the water.

"Deep down I realised he had gone already," he said. "But you still feel like you have to try and do something. I was in fight-or-flight mode."

An onlooker had phoned 111 by the time William and Devan pulled Nobby on to the sand.

Alison, who knew CPR, pressed her hands to her friend's chest and pumped up and down for about 10 minutes. Her husband Devan and another beachgoer took turns performing CPR in their wetsuits until St John Ambulance paramedics arrived.

"In Tairua, when the siren goes, there are so many volunteers that want to help," Alison said.

"The north-end car park, which has room for about 20 cars, was filled with emergency services and volunteers."

Nobby's wife, Julie, thanked the community for their overwhelming support over the last few days.

"The community have been so kind to us," she said. "Thank you for taking us in and making us feel so loved and looked after. We will never forget their kindness. It has made it so much easier for us."

Alison said while the tragic incident had shocked the family and close-knit community, Nobby died doing what he loved.

"He almost couldn't have scripted a better death," she said.

Son William said: "He was someone who loved the ocean and was very comfortable in the ocean.

"He died a good death, we know he did. He died how he wanted to have died."

Nobby is survived by his wife and four children Charlie, William, Sarah and Harry.

The couple shared 35 years together after marrying in 1984.

"He was very straight-forward," Julie said. "He wanted no fuss, he just liked an easy and enjoyable life."

He loved his bees, nature and the water. "He just loved being in the sea," she said.

Nobby was to attend William and Claudia's wedding later this year, the first of his children to marry.

But William said his father would have shrugged off his absence on his son's special day.

"He would say, 'You're not marrying me'," he said. "He is right but it doesn't make it easier."

Instead, he would come to peace with the idea by toasting to his late father on his wedding day.

William described his father as an "understated eccentric".

Nobby's other three children spoke about their father from England.

His daughter Sarah Massey said her father had formed a strong bond with her son and his only grandson, 1-year-old Beau.

"As a father, he was incredibly trusting, respectful of our opinions and how we see the world and that was always a beautiful thing."

Son Charlie Massey remembered spending most family holidays at the beach or near the water.

"My overriding memory of him that separates him from other people I know was how non-judgemental he was," he said. "He was a really good judge of character.".

Nobby's youngest son, Harry Massey, remembered taking daily dips in the ocean after school.

"When I was learning to drive we would drive to and from school every day and every day we would stop and go for a swim," he said. "He looked like he was born in the sea. It was really nice."

Harry said his father was a good example of masculinity.

"He was the kind of man I want to be."