A surfer who broke his neck in a surfing mishap is learning to walk again after more than six months of rehab.
Dad-of-two Mike Smith was camping with friends and family at Pakiri, north of Auckland, when the accident happened, four days after Christmas.
He suffered two fractured vertebrae, a serious head injury and could have died when blood clots developed in his lungs.
Smith, 42, from Henderson, West Auckland, set out for a 7am surf in fine conditions at Pakiri beach, north of Auckland, late last year.
He had 30 years' experience, having surfed all over the world including Bali, Vietnam and the Pacific Islands.
"The waves weren't that big at Pakiri and I was just enjoying being back in the water after a long break from it," he said.
Smith can't recall the moment a wave upturned him and he smashed his head on the seabed, blacking out in chest-high water.
When he came to he tried to breathe and took in a lot of water.
"It dawned on me I was underwater and I realised I also couldn't move my arms and legs. I really thought this was the end. I was a goner and I was going to drown."
Fortunately a doctor, a nurse and a firefighter were among those holidaying at the beach that morning.
"I mean, what are the odds of that? They got me out of the water using my board as a stretcher and got me stable and the doctor recognised I had broken my neck."
But heavy holiday traffic meant an ambulance would have taken too long, and the journey by road would risk further injury.
Instead a terrified Smith lay at the water's edge until the Westpac Rescue Helicopter arrived and he was flown to North Shore Hospital.
"At first I had no feeling in my arms and legs, then I got pins and needles in my toes that were so painful I felt I was being electrocuted.
"I was so glad when I heard the chopper arriving. The crew took control and if it hadn't been for them and the quick thinking of the people at the scene I might have died."
Westpac Rescue Helicopter advanced paramedic Russell Clark said things could have been fatal if experienced professionals had not been on the beach that day.
"I can't praise enough the actions of the people who were there on the ground," he said. "They did a great job until we got there and could airlift Mike out. Spinal cord injuries can be very difficult to deal with."
After two months in hospital Smith slowly moved from a wheelchair to learning how to walk again.
He had to sell his stake in a business he had recently started with a friend.
"I should just be thankful I am still alive but when doctors told me I would have to forget working for at least a year I burst into tears," he said.
Smith is now awaiting an operation to have a ceramic plate fitted in his spinal cord but he is keen to get back in the water as soon as he can.
His plight will feature on TV One's new helicopter rescue series Code:1 on August 1.
• Each chopper rescue mission costs an average of $5000. To donate $3 to Auckland's Westpac Rescue Helicopter, text CHOPPER to 8663.