They died at a lake, a harbour and two beaches.

It happened in the morning, and in the afternoon.

And in each case, people - first responders, volunteers and bystanders - tried desperately to save them.

Four drowning deaths in three days.

Every one a tragedy, Water Safety NZ chief executive Jonty Mills said.

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"It's a terrible start", Mills said of the first three days of the holiday drowning toll season, which runs each year from 4pm Christmas Eve until 6am January 3.

"But I always say one preventable drowning is one too many."

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The season was barely half a day old when the first death, of a man who had been crabbing at Northland's Uretiti Beach, occurred.

The beach, 6km north of Waipū, is unpatrolled and has a grim history of crab fisher deaths.

Police search and rescue, Coastguard, a rescue helicopter and Ruakākā Surf Club lifeguards all scrambled to the scene when the alarm was raised at 10.10am on Christmas Day.

"A comprehensive co-ordinated water search was conducted for around an hour before the missing man was spotted in the water by the helicopter crew," a Surf Life Saving spokeswoman said.

Lifeguards in an inflatable boat retrieved the man's body.

People should always swim between the flags. File photo / Jason Oxenham
People should always swim between the flags. File photo / Jason Oxenham

A second Christmas Day drowning followed just over four hours later, 100km to the west, when a snorkeller was found unresponsive in the water at Kai Iwi Lakes, near Northland's western coast.

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The person was taken to shore but couldn't be revived.

Twenty-four hours later, first responders again had the sad task of telling family a loved one had been lost to the water.

This time it was a swimmer at Onemana Beach, 10km north of Coromandel's Whangamatā.

Two men were caught in a rip when they swam outside the beach's flagged area. A lifeguard pulled both ashore, before performing CPR on one.

Efforts continued with others guards and off-duty health professionals before an ambulance arrived, but the man was pronounced dead at the scene.

And then yesterday morning, a woman aged in her 60s died after a boat capsized in the Far North's Houhora Harbour. Two others survived the 11.15am incident with minor injuries.

Water Safety NZ chief executive Jonty Mills is urging Kiwis to respect the water, as the holiday drowning toll reaches four in three days. File photo / Hagen Hopkins
Water Safety NZ chief executive Jonty Mills is urging Kiwis to respect the water, as the holiday drowning toll reaches four in three days. File photo / Hagen Hopkins

Water Safety, Surf Life Saving and Coastguard have all been working together to share the same messages around the water.

This included checking conditions, taking two forms of communication, and wearing life jackets at all times while boating, Mills said.

Swimming between flags on beaches, wearing life jackets while rock fishing, and constantly supervising small children around water had also been pushed.

And a raft of incidents involving inflatables prompted lifeguards to this week remind beach-goers the toys belong in the pool, not at the beach, where people could find themselves blown out to sea.

"[Inflatable toys] are great for insta shots but not so great for the beach and surf environment," Surf Life Saving northern region chief executive Matt Williams said.

Surfboards belong at the beach, inflatable toys don't. File photo / Richard Robinson
Surfboards belong at the beach, inflatable toys don't. File photo / Richard Robinson

Last holiday season three people drowned between Christmas Eve and January 3, but there was an average of eight preventable drownings each season, Mills said.

The toll this season, where each death had occurred while doing a different activity in a different environment, showed drowning was a complex issue.

He urged people to take personal responsibility, given how stretched rescue services could be.

"We need to respect the water. We've got increasing numbers of people doing an increased number of water-based activities and these tragedies are reflecting how quickly things can turn.

"The water can be incredibly inviting and welcoming this time of the year but at the same time it can be incredibly unforgiving."