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Each time volunteer lifeguard Gaby Marshall heads to Port Waikato to patrol the beach it costs her about $50 in gas.

It's a cost she's happy to take on if it means being able to keep people safe - but in an ideal world it's one she wouldn't have to bear.

Surf Life Saving is a largely unfunded organisation. Each year hundreds of people are dragged from the water thanks to volunteers like Marshall who give up their time to patrol our beaches.

The 20-year-old knows first hand how important it is we have lifeguards.

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As a young girl she was overly confident while swimming at Sunset Beach with another friend.

"We went swimming pretty much every day that we were there in summer. We were also both part of the junior surf programme.

"We were swimming outside the flags ... we thought we knew the beach so thought we could swim wherever because it was out of the crowds and down by the rocks".

Her parents were on the beach but didn't see the girls get into trouble.

"We were swimming right next to the rocks and that's where the feeder current started to pull us out.

"I remember being able to stand, almost chin-high, but not being able to walk because the current was so strong. It was just pulling us further and further out until we got to the depth we couldn't stand."

Embarrassed about getting into a dangerous situation, despite being in the junior programme, the girls didn't put their hands up for help.

"We knew where rips were, we knew how to swim between the flags, we knew to put our hand up but we still managed to get stuck. Luckily we didn't go to the depths where I thought we were going to die but it was just really frightening."

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"Going through my mind was that I just had to keep fighting it and going back to shore. We were both just looking at each other like 'what do we do' ... my mind was just panicked".

Sunset Beach lifeguard Gaby Marshall with fellow lifeguard Joe Wilson. Photo / Supplied
Sunset Beach lifeguard Gaby Marshall with fellow lifeguard Joe Wilson. Photo / Supplied

Fortunately guards at the tower had been watching the water, saw them being pulled out and went to the rescue.

"A lifeguard saved us."

He took the girls back to shore where their concerned parents were waiting.

Marshall says she believed they would have been swept out further if it wasn't for the guards.

"We were expending all our energy trying to fight it. If no one had seen us ... it could have gone badly."

"It definitely was a big wake-up call."

The Hamilton university student has stayed with Surf Life Saving and has been involved in five rescues where she has pulled struggling swimmers from the sea.

This summer she returns to the beach as patrol captain and will probably give up about 60 hours of her time.

Each time she drives there for a weekend shifts she has to pay for petrol and food, an expense which can be a struggle while studying. While things like her uniform and training are paid for by the club the money still needs to be fundraised and she'll spend about 20 hours helping with that.

Some members spend hundreds of hours on fundraising which varies from bingo nights, sausage sizzles and cutting up firewood to sell.

Like thousands of other guards across the country she says it is time, effort and an expense she is happy to give, knowing it will help save lives.

Surf Life Saving NZ doesn't receive any government funding, but is part of a wider group from the water safety sector in talks with ministers about the need for financial support.

Marshall believes such funding would make a huge difference in reducing our of drowning toll.

"There should be government funding for it because we have such a high rate of drowning in water accidents. We have volunteer hours but it's not enough because it happens outside of hours and in winter."