A fishing programme Dave Haskell once saw on TV may have been the difference between life and death yesterday.

Mr Haskell arrived at one of his favourite surfing spots at the mouth of the Waitara River in Taranaki just before midday to check out what the off-shore sou'easter might be doing to his secret break.

As the 58-year-old pulled up at the river mouth carpark, there were people looking out to sea, concerned at what appeared to be a driverless boat drifting around, with a couple of heads bobbing nearby.

There were other surfers out there, but they were too far away to see what was going on, he said.

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"I was the only one with a board. I said to someone, 'what do you reckon? Should I get out there?'

"They said I'd better. I put my wetsuit on and was heading down when the cops arrived. I got out there surprisingly fast, helped by the river and the outgoing tide," he said.

When the New Plymouth surfer clambered aboard the small unmanned inflatable boat drifting in big waves off the mouth of the river, the final thing between him and rescuing its drowning crew was whether he could work out how to drive it.

His mind raced back to the programme and it came back to him. He tried the throttle control. It worked.

Then he was able to swing the boat round in the fierce surf and get it to the first of two men who had been flung out after the boat was hit by a wave as it tried to cross the river mouth bar.

He got to the first man, the boat's owner, and hauled him aboard.

"He was a big fellah. Must have weighed 18 stone (114kg) at least.

"I had a helluva time getting him on board," Mr Haskell said.

The pair then raced to save the second fisherman, who was floating face-down nearby.

"The skipper jumped right in and grabbed him. Then I had to get them both back on board again," he said.

They were too late. The second man was too far gone, despite 40 minutes of CPR administered by ambulance crew back on the beach.

But Mr Haskell had other dramas even before they got there.

"On the way back in, the big fellah took the wheel. He insisted on taking over as we headed back in.

"Trouble was, he started to get us side-on to a wave again. In the end, I just grabbed the wheel and got us straightened up."

When he's not managing the Eight Ball snooker bar in downtown New Plymouth Mr Haskell is often to be found catching the breaks at Waitara.

He has been surfing Waitara since 1970. He reckons a recent storm and big flood in Taranaki's biggest river has built up the river bar by a metre, making it the surf break of a lifetime.

"It's supposed to be our secret. I guess that's shot now."

He's seen a few boats come to grief from the treachery of the bar, but this was his first rescue.

Senior Sergeant Matt Prendergast said he understood from boaties in the know that changes to the bar have made it more treacherous to cross.

The boat owner, a Waitara man, had gone out fishing yesterday morning with a visitor from the town, a Chinese national. Neither wore life jackets, he said.

They got a bit seasick in the conditions, so decided to return.

They were seen by witnesses making several manoeuvres around the bar trying to get back in, then got side-on to a wave.

Mr Prendergast said the boat broached and the men were thrown out, although it appeared the boat itself did not capsize.

He was full of praise for Mr Haskell: "He's done a sterling effort. Good initiative. We didn't ask him. We're always a bit conscious that we don't want to force people to go out there and put themselves at risk.

"I've got little doubt that if he hadn't acted when he did it is very questionable whether the other guy would have stayed afloat long enough for the rescue helicopter to get there."

The surviving man, aged in his 60s, suffered minor hypothermia and was treated by ambulance staff.

The Taranaki Rescue helicopter was deployed along with Surf Life Saving and the Coastguard.

Police will not release the name of the deceased man until his next of kin have been informed.

Mr Haskell said he felt for the family of the deceased man: "It was sad, mostly. Bloody sad that that guy won't be sitting down to dinner with his family tonight."

He was back at work at Eight Ball last night. He wouldn't stand in front of the big screen for his photo to be taken as it played surfing scenes.

"That'd be way too cheesy," he said.