Search and rescue volunteers often end up battling challenging terrain and terrible weather conditions to get to those they are trying to save. The people who volunteer their time and skills to do it - and those who support them - often receive little public recognition. The 2016 New Zealand Search and Rescue (NZSAR) Council's awards, announced in a ceremony at Parliament tonight, acknowledges those people. Here are our heroes' stories:

Afternoon swim that went wrong

Ray Burge, Coastguard Northern Region, Gold Award

A family out for a Sunday afternoon swim at an Auckland beach found themselves in a life or death situation - until help arrived.

The couple and their three young children had been enjoying their day out at Maraetai's Waiomanu Beach, on December 11, when disaster struck.

The woman found herself in trouble in the surf so her partner rushed out to try to save her - but was also overcome by the waves.


With the children left on the beach, the man could only wave his arms frantically, hoping help would come.

His hopes were answered when Ray Burge - an off-duty operations manager for Coastguard Northern Region - spotted the distressed man while he and his family were driving past the beach.

Burge immediately called the Coastguard Operations Centre and had his daughter Abbey stay on the line to provide updates on the situation.

His wife Lianne and son Jack comforted and stayed with the children on the beach, while he ran into the water, aiming to get the man to safety.

The man had drifted about 200m from the shore and Burge fought heavy seas - challenging 25 knot winds and a 1.5m swell - to get to him.

When he reached him, the man was so exhausted he was struggling to keep his head above the water.

Burge had to drag the weight of the man as he made the swim back.

It was not until he made it back to shore that he discovered the man had gone in to try and help his partner.

Again, Burge contacted the Coastguard duty officer, this time to relay where the woman was last seen.

The woman was later picked up by Coastguard Maraetai and both adults were seen to by paramedics at the beach, thanks to Burge's earlier request for an ambulance.

Burge's quick thinking and actions that day have been widely praised and today he is honoured with a Gold Award in the NZ Search and Rescue Awards.

He is among several people from around the country to receive accolades for outstanding rescue efforts last year.

Organisers of the awards said Burge's Gold Award was given for a very significant contribution to search and rescue in the NZ Search and Rescue region during 2016.

"Ray performed this heroic act of bravery and life-saving actions safely and effectively.

"His Coastguard knowledge meant that he was highly experienced in search and rescue and was able to manage the situation, performing life-saving actions.

"There is little doubt that Ray's actions saved two people from drowning.''

Rescuers cross avalanches to get to tourists

Taranaki Alpine Cliff Rescue, NZ Police SAR, Taranaki Rescue Helicopter Trust,
Certificate of Achievement

Three tourists were winched to safety after being hit by an avalanche on Mt Taranaki. Photo/Supplied
Three tourists were winched to safety after being hit by an avalanche on Mt Taranaki. Photo/Supplied

Three tourists had to be rescued off Mt Taranaki in September when an avalanche occurred, injuring at least one.

Emergency crews made their way to the site after concerns were raised that the group was taking a long time to climb the eastern side of the mountain.

Rescuers had to cross two avalanche courses as debris fell on them to get to the tourists.

One of the rescuers, Senior Constable Vaughan Smith, threw himself over one of the trampers to protect them and was hit by a large slab of ice.

Another rescuer, Michael Johns, was also injured.

The crew members have been lauded for their efforts.

"They carried out one of their most challenging jobs and longest winch, in failing light, with the risk of dislodging debris on the rescue team.''

A tourist is winched to safety aboard the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter after being hit by an avalanche. Photo/Supplied
A tourist is winched to safety aboard the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter after being hit by an avalanche. Photo/Supplied

Climbers fell 200m at Mt Aspiring

Aspiring Helicopters, Otago Rescue Helicopter Trust, Wanaka Alpine Cliff Rescue, Certificate of Achievement

Two Mt Aspiring climbers fell about 200m, sustaining multiple broken bones and lacerations, as well as possible spinal and other internal injuries in an incident in December.

Aspiring Helicopters found the pair and called on the Otago Rescue Helicopter, which had an advanced paramedic on board, to help.

Both helicopters evacuated the climbers. Another chopper flew in an ICU doctor to meet the pair in Wanaka, before they were flown to Dunedin Hospital.

"This award recognises the exceptional skill levels of everyone involved," the NZSAR Council said.

"The required multiple hours of training needed to learn and maintain these skills, the excellent communication, sound decision-making and outstanding coordination between the teams involved, which resulted in a textbook search and rescue operation of these severely injured trampers."

Container ship captain came to aid

5 Squadron RNZAF, MV Southern Lily Captain Shashi Prakash, Certificate of Achievement

With a stricken yacht in need of help, the captain of a container ship did not think twice about turning around to offer its help.

In June last year, a group of friends on board the Platino found themselves in a harrowing situation after an accident led to the death of one of its members and another falling overboard.

With the yacht's boom badly damaged in rough seas, the three surviving crew members activated their distress beacon about 300 nautical miles north-west of New Zealand.

A Royal NZ Air Force Orion was sent to the scene and carried out a search for the missing man, later identified as Aucklander Stephen Forno, 63. His body would never be found.

A 145m container ship, Southern Lily, was about 175 nautical miles from the yacht and diverted its course towards it.

Under extremely difficult conditions, the surviving crew on board the Platino were successfully moved onto the container ship, captained by Shashi Prakash.

Prakash's crew cared for the surviving members and transported them safely back to New Zealand.

The body of their colleague killed on board, 47-year-old Nick Saull, was later recovered.

Seven hours of tramping in the dark

LandSAR Hawke's Bay, Hawke's Bay Helicopter Rescue Trust, NZ Police Search and Rescue, Certificate of Achievement

A team of rescuers tramped seven hours in the dark, including an hour in a chest-high river, to rescue two trampers caught out by deteriorating weather in the Ruahine Ranges on October 5 last year.

The trampers activated their personal locator beacon and, via cellphone, the police determined the trampers were inadequately equipped for the conditions, exhausted, hypothermic and could not get themselves to a more sheltered and survivable location.

Winds were gusting 100-130km/h along the ridgeline at the time.

A rescue team tramped through the Makaroro River and clambered down 480 metres of rock, shingle, tussock and leatherwood to get to them.

They found the pair about 3am and stabilised them. At daybreak, the rescuers started trying to move them out. It took 4-5 hours to cover 500 metres.

By 10.30am, one of the trampers, who was suffering hypothermia, was no longer able to move.

The rescue team were also showing the effects of more than 24 hours of operating in severe conditions on no sleep.

The Lowe Rescue helicopter was deployed, but due to the severe turbulence on the lee side of the ridge, the aircraft could only take two people per lift.

The pilot had to abort the hover twice due to the challenging conditions.

"The survival of the two trampers would have been significantly compromised without the
professional skills, teamwork, perseverance and courage of the rescue team," the NZSAR Council said.

"When the attempt to walk to safer ground was no longer an option, the skill and courage of the helicopter crew in challenging flying conditions facilitated a safe recovery."

Winching tourists in a thunderstorm

3 Squadron Royal NZ Air Force, Certificate of Achievement

Two tourists were stranded on the Archway Rocks at Wharariki Beach near Nelson in appalling weather on February 17.

Winds of up to 50 knots, heavy rain, thunderstorms and a cloud base reducing to 300ft meant other helicopters were unable to carry out the rescue.

Onshore wind was also causing 3 metre breaking waves.

The 3 Squadron NH90, crew responded. They included: Squadron Leader Paul Aitken (aircraft captain), Flight Lieutenant Loic Ifrah (co-pilot), Warrant Officer Chris Mitchell, Corporal Aeron Mellish and Corporal Alex Taylor.

The crew left Ohakea at 5.45pm and found the tourists nestled on a small ledge at the base of a 60m cliff.

Aitken unloaded extra personnel and equipment nearby which the NZSAR Council said "demonstrated superior airmanship, noting the pressures of the fading light, the weather and sea conditions".

Amid concerns that the rotor wash could blow the survivors into the severely disturbed water, Aitken held a "very challenging" hover position as Mitchell conducted a 60m winch lowering Mellish to the tourists.

The woman was rescued first, using a hypothermic strop, and then Mellish was winched a second time to rescue the man.

"The combination of a capable helicopter operated by a very capable crew saved the lives
of the two tourists, who would not have survived due to the conditions with no other feasible means of rescue," the NZSAR Council noted.

Tramper broke leg down steep, rocky face

Amalgamated Helicopters NZ Ltd, Certificate of Achievement

With cloud cover coming and going and daylight fading, pilot Jason Diedrichs and crew member Jamie Hensen had only a small window of opportunity to reach a tramper in the Tararua Ranges.

On April 25 last year, the man fell and broke his leg. He activated his personal locator beacon near Girdlestone Peak.

A helicopter initially tasked with locating him was unable to land or winch down to him due to bad weather.

Amalgamated Helicopters was asked to fly in a team as close as possible to the man.

Diedrichs and Hensen's knowledge of the area enabled them to stay under the cloud and locate the tramper but the impending darkness meant there were only minutes left before flying would become unsafe.

The tramper was down a steep, rocky face and had two bones poking through his leg.

Dedrichs landed as close as he could to the injured man, while Hensen was able to make
his way down and drag him up to the helicopter.

"Jason's attention to risk, as well as both his and Jamie's deep, extensive working knowledge of this area, provided the only option of getting the injured tramper out of the area in a timely manner," the NZSAR Council said.

The other winners

Ian Coard, Coastguard Riverton, Gold Award

Ian Coard, from Coastguard Riverton, has been honoured with a Gold Award at this year's NZSAR Awards. Photo / Supplies
Ian Coard, from Coastguard Riverton, has been honoured with a Gold Award at this year's NZSAR Awards. Photo / Supplies

Having volunteered for Coastguard for almost 30 years, Ian Coard is a well-known face among boaties.

He is a member of the Riverton unit and is the volunteer Harbourmaster in the area.

Coard, who holds the Coastguard ISC Senior Master qualification, is committed to the sector; having been on the Coastguard NZ Board and serving as the national president for three years.

He has held a number of leadership roles over the years and has also played a key role in some major search and rescue efforts in the Foveaux Strait as an incident management team member.

That team deals with search and rescue incidents deemed to be high pressure and have included high-profile accidents such as the Easy Rider boating tragedy in March 2012.

Aoraki/Mt Cook Alpine Rescue Team, The Helicopter Line Glentanner Park,
Certificate of Achievement

Four people were saved in the space of about eight weeks thanks to the efforts of staff from the Aoraki/Mt Cook Alpine Rescue Team and the Helicopter Line, Glentanner Park.

A fifth person who had suffered a medical condition was also rescued by crews during that time.

The team members, who include rescue pilots, have received a Certificate of Achievement in this year's NZSAR Awards.

All the rescues were carried out in challenging conditions and were at high altitude which involved "exceptional'' flying skills to get to those affected.

Ray Bellringer, Aoraki/Mt Cook Alpine Rescue Team, Certificate of Achievement

For his commitment and services to search and rescue.

Ray Bellringer from the Aoraki/ Mt Cook Alpine Rescue Team. Photo / Supplied
Ray Bellringer from the Aoraki/ Mt Cook Alpine Rescue Team. Photo / Supplied

Pete Woodward, Coastguard Kapiti, Certificate of Achievement

For his dedication and fundraising for Coastguard Kapiti.

Nicola Hockley, Coastguard Canterbury, Certificate of Achievement

For her dedication to Coastguard and search and rescue.

Elton Ngawhika, Coastguard Rotorua Lakes, Certificate of Achievement

For his commitment to Coastguard and search and rescue.

John Taylor, LandSAR Wanaka, Certificate of Achievement

For his commitment to LandSAR training and search and rescue.