All he saw was an arm in the air. But then it vanished.

Noticing the waves were getting rough and the current strong, Braedyn Birss had just told his friend, Paulo Henrique, it was time to head in as they swam at Pakiri Beach.

Seconds later, he spied an arm briefly pop up out of the water.

He would soon discover it was the arm of a man, believed to be in his 50s, who was losing his battle to stay afloat.

Braedyn Briss, right, and Paulo Henrique tried their hardest to save a drowning man yesterday. Photo / Doug Sherring
Braedyn Briss, right, and Paulo Henrique tried their hardest to save a drowning man yesterday. Photo / Doug Sherring

The man was the victim of one of two drownings on a stretch of beach north of Auckland just a few kilometres apart yesterday. Police confirmed a local man drowned while swimming at Goat Island about 3.55pm.

Birss currently has a Brazilian couple, Henrique and partner Carla Amaral, on a homestay with his family.

Yesterday, together with his two sons, aged 4 and 7, they thought they'd go to the beach.

They first opted to go snorkelling at Goat Island, however discovered it was too rough.

Arriving at Pakiri sometime after 1pm, there were about 40 people at the beach, 10 of whom were either in the water or near its edge.

Birss, together with Henrique, headed into the surf for a swim, while Amaral looked after Birss' two sons.

Pakiri Beach. Image/Google maps
Pakiri Beach. Image/Google maps

After a short while and standing about chest deep, Birss was struggling to get any footing and was getting thrown around a bit. That's when he yelled out to back to shore.

"It was like a washing machine out there. I saw a girl on a board and she was kind of bobbing around ...she was young. I didn't have very far to go to her, about six to eight metres. I went over and grabbed her and said 'it's okay, you'll be all right'.


"I was up to my neck but could get my footing and quite fortuitously a nice forming wave came and I pushed her and she got it."

Looking back, he saw the wave carried the girl, who was upset, in close to shore.

Then he saw two men about 10m away in the ocean. They didn't appear to be together, he said.

He noticed the drowning swimmer and yelled out to the other man to help drag him to safety, but then noticed the second man was also struggling.

What is drowning and what can we do to avoid it?

Birss said he made the decision to swim over to the drowning man.

"It was really windy, you could see each other for a minute and then you couldn't because of all the waves ... but I couldn't find him, I didn't know where he was, I just lost sight of him."

The man had gone under but then he emerged from the water again, so Birss swam over. The man was unresponsive and Birss focused on keeping his head above the water.

Birss was about shoulder deep by this stage and still struggling to find any footing while getting bashed by waves.

"I just held the back of the guy's head and got semi-under him and held with one hand his head up and my other hand I was walking backwards as quickly as I could."

Henrique got to the pair when Birss was about mid-torso deep.

"I had him and then the waves would wash over us, and I'm trying to keep his head above water.

"He was a big guy ... we got to about thigh deep and we were yelling and trying to keep moving because we wanted to get him to the beach to get some breath in him pretty quick and then three ladies came out, and we dragged him clear of the surf."

Birss along with a couple of others carried out CPR for the next 30 minutes until emergency services arrived.

The other man who had been struggling made his own way to shore before being spotted and helped to lay down and put in the recovery position.

"He was breathing the whole time but was not in a good way at all, but he was alive. The [other] guy was completely unresponsive the whole time and we never got a response out of him, unfortunately."

Birss, who is a category manager at BP service stations, who sponsor the country's lifeguards, said the incident had been traumatic.

He grew up in Sydney and had always felt comfortable in the ocean.

"I enjoy body surfing and always felt comfortable in big waves but I've got to say that ... really, it's just too easy to die, to put it simply.

"And I think everybody's default is that you think you're going to be okay but it just shows that it can happen so quickly."

The beach had signs that it was unpatrolled.

The drowning had caused Birss to reassess how he would swim from now on.

"I'm definitely going to dial back the risky situations that I potentially put myself in. It was a pretty sobering experience, I've got to say. It was traumatic.

"You're really willing someone to do the big cough and it never came and there was a group of us who tried really hard to make it happen and it was just an avoidable tragedy."

Jonty Mills, chief executive of Water Safety New Zealand, said while he couldn't comment on the drownings specifically, it was a good time to remind people to swim within their limits and if in doubt, stay out.

The men's deaths put the drowning toll at 20, compared with 24 at the same time last year.

About 80 to 85 per cent of all drownings in New Zealand were men, he said.