A Northlander who saved a family from drowning says the image of an unconscious teenager floating in the surf at a remote Ngunguru beach will stick with him forever.
But Alistair Neumann, 32, currently living in Wellington, doesn't consider himself a hero. The painter-decorator said that title belonged to the 16-year-old girl who "sacrificed herself to save the others" during the dramatic rescue on January 14.
"She was exhausted from keeping the boys up and out of the water. She sacrificed herself to keep them alive."
Neumann was in the last week of his holiday at Papaka, a secluded beachside location only accessible down a private Ngunguru Ford Rd driveway when the event unfolded.
About 3pm, the father-of-two had settled under a gazebo with a cold beer when he heard a distressed woman shouting.
"She was yelling, 'help, help, my mum and the kids are drowning'. I put my beer down thinking what the hell."
Neumann, along with friend and co-worker Hamish Eyles, 26, from Wellington, made a 30-second bolt to the shore of an unpatrolled beach near the Ngunguru Sandspit.
"When I got to the water the first thing I saw was a four or five-year-old floating in the swells. I grabbed him by the back of his togs and heaved him like a sack of potatoes into the shallows," Neumann said.
Eyles caught the conscious child and quickly put him on the shore where Neumann's partner Lissa Dunn, 29, started first aid while also directing emergency services to the location over the phone.
A woman in her 50s - the children's nana - was pulled from the surf by Dunn.
The lifeless figure of a 16-year-old girl was spotted by Neumann, as he stood about knee-deep in the rough waves.
"She was unconscious and was just getting washed into the break of the outgoing tide which had just started to turn."
Neumann grabbed the gasping girl and placed her in a fireman's lift as he rushed her to safety.
The pair were placed into the recovery position by Neumann, whose first aid experience from his Forest Protection Services days 19 years ago "naturally kicked in".
He placed a finger in the unconscious girl's mouth to help her vomit sea water which cleared her airway and roused her, he said.
"She kept trying to go back to sleep so we worked hard to keep her awake by talking to her."
A family member told Neumann someone was still missing.
"There was a boy yelling help. We didn't see him at the start because he was 10m away from the others and on his own struggling. He was the one who took on the most water."
The teenage boy was barely conscious when Neumann pulled him to shore. They put him in the recovery position and used fire blankets from their van to keep everyone warm until paramedics from the Northland Rescue Helicopter took over.
"It was just another day that went south really quick. It's just so lucky we were there and we're grateful that mother nature gave them back when she could've easily taken them," Neumann said.
He was astonished the family had braved the unfavourable 1.5m easterly swell that was "quite rough".
"We are so strict around the water. We weren't swimming that day because we knew better," Neumann said.
Kiripaka resident Hone Tana has lived near the beach for more than 40 years. He placed a warning sign at the beach's entrance with safety advice to swimmers and which reminds people to respect the sacred location.
The sign was put up after the death of 20-year-old Shoan Mafileo, from Auckland, in 2010. He was presumed drowned when a freak wave knocked him off his feet in the surf and swept him out to sea. An extensive search for his body by family and friends proved fruitless.
Surf Life Saving Northern Region lifesaving manager Ari Peach said the best option for beachgoers to keep safe was to visit beaches in Northland patrolled by lifeguards.
These are at Ocean Beach at Whangārei Heads, Ruakākā, Waipū Cove, Mangawhai Heads, Baylys Beach and at Ahipara.