Children watched yesterday as their father's body was pulled ashore at Port Waikato, and last night two other family members who were missing were presumed to have also drowned.
The family were net-fishing late in the day when the three victims were swept out to sea, sparking a search by lifeguards from two clubs, police, the coastguard and the Auckland Westpac rescue helicopter.
The triple tragedy brought calls from local surf club president Malcolm Beattie for beach users to take greater care.
Yesterday's accident and the death of a man while snorkeling north of Auckland add to a horror year for drownings.
More than 95 people drowned between January and the start of this month. That toll is eight more than for the whole of last year.
Mr Beattie, president of the Sunset Beach lifeguard service, said the dead man at Port Waikato and his companions were wearing heavy clothing, did not have life jackets and were fishing in an outgoing tide on the river mouth "with the most dangerous rips probably anywhere in the country".
"The tragedy for the family, of course, is that the first person brought ashore, who had drowned, his kids were on the shore."
He said it was a traumatic scene.
A crew from a neighbouring club, Karioitahi, joined the rescue effort.
Two 17-year-old lifeguards had responded to the call for help and pulled the 42-year-old - estimated to weigh about 160kg - from the water.
"He was a very large man ... The Karioitahi crew started the resuscitation but it was too late," Mr Beattie said.
People did not realise how dangerous that body of water could be.
"They're not used to what they're doing and it adds to the drownings we've had.
"Over the last five years I've been out there and picked up two bodies myself."
Many of the victims were out "hoping to get some seafood and they're netting in unbelievably dangerous waters".
He understood the dead man and the others who were missing were from the same Pacific Island family but the exact relationship was not known.
A search will resume for the missing pair, and the police Eagle helicopter was due to join the search at first light today.
Conditions were "totally unsafe" when the three people were swept away, Mr Beattie said.
"It was short, choppy surf with peaking waves, which makes it totally unsafe. We don't go there ourselves."
Another drowning occurred at Goat Island, north of Auckland, about the same time.
An intensive-care paramedic with the Westpac rescue helicopter, Marcel Driessen, said the body of an Asian man, in his mid-20s, was found floating about 50m offshore by a passing pleasure boat.
He had been snorkling with a friend, who lost sight of him. "He was pulled aboard [the pleasure boat] and CPR carried out," Mr Driessen said. "We got there and couldn't save him."