The sight of an overturned kayak and a glimmer of orange that turned out to be a motionless man clinging onto life was all Nigel Bryant saw from the safety of his surfboard.

The man was about 64 years old; pale, incoherent, exhausted and hanging on by the waning strength of his arms.

It was only meant to be a Sunday afternoon surf with mates for Bryant at Stingray Bay, north of Tangoio Beach, but just two waves in, it became a rescue operation.

Had he not been there, it might have quickly and tragically become a "body recovery".

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"I reckon five or 10 minutes [later] and it would have been a body recovery. He had been in the water for quite some time," Bryant said.

"I could see the orange on the front and that was actually him and, if anything, that saved him. It didn't seem right to me."

As a keen kayak fisherman, he knew kayaks were only meant to be a solid colour and the hint of orange was something clinging on - a vest.

All that was going through the 43-year-old's mind was "I've got to get him in".

"I paddled out and I saw a couple of guys in their undies on flat rock preparing to jump in the water and I found out at the end that it was actually one of his sons who was going to swim out and try and get him," he said. "If he did, he would have drowned."

"I felt safe the whole time and I knew that if I went out to sea, it wouldn't be long before the chopper came so I wasn't worried at all."

By the time he had manoeuvred the dead weight onto the kayak, the pair were a kilometre from shore, having drifted a further 200m from when he first spotted the man in trouble.

"We were a long way out," he said. "It wasn't until I turned around that I went 'woah, I got a long paddle ahead of me'."

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And it was, taking an hour for Bryant to tow him back to the beach, by which time the Hawke's Bay Coastguard arrived and he could pass the man into their hands.

Bryant recalls the man saying, "I thought I was going to die".

"He said to me 'ah my days are up', so in his mind he was probably ready to go."

Afterwards, the man's son also got into trouble, swimming out and trying to get close to his father.

"My arms were exhausted by the time I had finished trying to get him and his son all sorted out. There was lots of paddling involved and that's because it was really windy yesterday, so you just get blown out to sea."

"I'm always in the water so I know my limits and you just do it."

"The thing that really grated me is that he didn't have a life jacket on. He didn't know the weather and he didn't have a life jacket and that's what happened."

The Coastguard later found the life jacket bobbing in the water.

"He never had it on, it was on the back of his kayak because I went and grabbed all of his bags and everything that was floating around as well."

He didn't know whether the man had taken it off while he was in a delirious state.

It is not the first time the Star Food Service general manager has saved a life, having done so 15 years ago at Mahia Peninsula when a woman was swept out to sea.

"When you're in the water, like a lot of us surfers are, if someone needs help of course you are going to help them because we understand the water."

The rescuer managed to get in two more waves afterwards before exhaustion set in.

"When you've saved someone's life, it is not until you get home and contemplate what you've just done, it is quite humbling. You get a good feeling about yourself," Bryant said.