While most of us were kicking back and enjoying our summer holidays, a group of volunteer surf lifeguards were preparing themselves for a different kind of break - a record-setting voyage around New Zealand in two specially modified inflatable rescue boats (IRBs).

The men, all in their mid 20s, had decided to try to complete the first such circumnavigation around the North, South and Stewart Islands in an inflatable craft less than 4m long.

The voyage, to celebrate the centenary of surf life saving in New Zealand, was led by Muriwai lifeguards Ash Matuschka and Andrew (Slim) Lancaster.

The team included Auckland-based Jason Harvey, Blake Ingram, Matt Buswell and Antony Morgan of Papamoa.

Matuschka says that he and Lancaster came up with the idea after reading Bear Grylls' (of Man vs Wild TV fame) book about his unassisted crossing of the North Atlantic in an open rigid inflatable boat.

"Slim and I sat down with the guys and discussed how we could make it happen," says Matuschka.

"We decided, as a small group of clubbies, that we wanted to achieve something significant to pay tribute to the organisation's centenary."

The voyage took 18 months to plan.

As well as liaising with volunteers at lifesaving clubs throughout the country, the men spent many hours researching similar nautical adventures, modifying equipment, plotting their route and working out at the gym.

"Not only did the gear need to be top notch but our bodies needed to be conditioned too," Matuschka says.

"We spent four solid months strengthening our core muscles so we could take big knocks out on the water without falling to pieces.

"Each team member was also allocated an area of responsibility to help spread the load."

Although expected to take 40 days, the 5200km journey was completed in just 34 days. Along the way the crew touched down at New Zealand's most well-known surf beaches as well as some of the country's most remote locations.

The men were shadowed on their voyage by an on-land support team which included a reserve driver, safety manager, mechanic, physiotherapist and land-based supporter.

There were two IRBs on the water at all times - with a driver and crewman in each - to ensure safety.

So those on shore could follow their progress, the team used communications equipment that had been supplied by Kordia. This allowed friends, family members and spectators to follow their progress live on a special website.

"We've been told the live tracking function made people feel as though they were part of the action," Matuschka says.

"Hundreds of people watched from computers at home, work and on their mobile phones as we left Auckland, headed up the North Island's east coast and finished the first of the journey's 32 legs at Ocean Beach, Whangarei Heads."

After departing Matai Bay for Ahipara on the west coast of the Far North on day three, favourable weather and surf conditions prompted the team to push further ahead than planned.

They managed to complete two legs in one day, travelling 438km from Matai Bay to Muriwai.

The marathon effort took just under 15 hours, with the crew pulling into the beach at 9.15pm just as the sun was setting.

Ahead of schedule, the lifeguards continued forging their way south.

Always aware that the weather had the potential to stall their trip, they wasted little time travelling down the west coast of the North Island.

Matuschka says a seamless crossing of Cook Strait put them in a good position to continue pushing down the South Island towards Fiordland.

"We knew we had to get to Fiordland as quickly as we could - that way, if the weather did pack up and prevent us from moving for a few days, at least we'd have time up our sleeves and wouldn't fall behind."

It was a clever move. After departing Milford Sound for Breaksea Sound the lifeguards were forced to hunker down in a barge for two days until the wild weather abated and permitted them to continue.

Under way again, they found Foveaux Strait posed no obstacles and they began their leg around Stewart Island, a part of the trip about which they had been quite worried.

"After we'd completed the Stewart Island leg, pushing back up the east coast was relatively painless," Matuschka says.

"Each night we'd spend a solid two or three hours working on the gear to ensure it stayed in reliable working order."

The trip's major incident occurred as they approached Mahia. One of the boats ran over a submerged piece of plywood with an exposed nail that ripped apart and completely destroyed one of the pontoons.

The incident had a silver lining, however.

As the damaged boat was being towed to shore at Te Rangiharu Bay the team was hailed by a man pleading for help - his father and girlfriend were caught in a rip down the beach.

By the time the team arrived the father had made it to shore but the woman was in serious trouble, about to be pulled under.

"We managed to get there just in time," Matuschka says.

The centenary circumnavigation, which had begun on January 5, was officially completed on February 7.

Accompanied by a fleet of 15 IRBs from other Auckland region's surf lifesaving clubs, the lifeguards received a boisterous welcome as they pulled into Viaduct Harbour.

Want to know more?
Check out the full story in the May/June issue of Pacific Powerboat magazine.