A teen girl rescued her friend from drowning - just three days after attending her first surf lifesaving lesson.

Ilynah Itamua, an Onehunga High School student, is being hailed a hero after her quick-thinking actions saved the life of a friend who suffered a suspected panic attack while swimming at a popular Auckland beach.

The a 14-year-old's heroics come as surf lifesavers reveal they fear more lives will be lost in the water unless they are better funded.

Ilynah and her friend Fabian were part of a youth outing to Point Chevalier Beach on December 8 organised by their church - Manurewa's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Advertisement

Ilynah's aunt, and caregiver, Jacqui Itamua, said a group of kids were doing bombs off platform out in the water. All seemed well until around an hour later, when she heard a commotion.

She ran down to the beach from her spot up on the railing and saw her two girls dragging their friend Fabian - who had lost consciousness - through the water towards the shore.

For Ilynah it was a case of being in the right place at the right time - she had learnt several surf life saving skills at a school camp module run by Surf Life Saving Northern Region, just the week before.

The avid swimmer, who has just finished her Year 10 studies, told the Weekend Herald she heard Fabian calling out to her and quickly realised he was in a bad way.

"All I heard was help - and he was just popping up and down because the water was pushing him," she said.

Ilynah swam over to him, with the boy revealing he couldn't swim.

"I was trying to hold him and pull him in, and then I called to his brother and his cousin to come and help me."

Ilynah and Luquerah Itamua saved their friend from drowning at Point Chevalier using skills learned at a school camp run by Surf Life Saving Northern Region the week before. Photo / Doug Sherring
Ilynah and Luquerah Itamua saved their friend from drowning at Point Chevalier using skills learned at a school camp run by Surf Life Saving Northern Region the week before. Photo / Doug Sherring

Fear set in, Ilynah said, when Fabian fell unconscious in her arms.

She began rushing to pull him into shore faster. Her sister Luquerah also came to help.

The rescue was made difficult by a big tree sticking up out of the water, which the girls had to pull Fabian's limp body up and over.

An ambulance was called, but the drama wasn't over - Jacqui said the boy started seizuring and, though he was breathing, he didn't regain consciousness.

Fabian was rushed to Starship children's hospital where he recovered quickly. Incredibly, the boy managed to return to the beach to thank Ilynah and Luquerah later that afternoon.

Jacqui said she was immensely proud of the pair following the event.

"Ilynah was proud of herself, but just very shaken up about the experience," she said.

"After the ambulance had gone, she told me 'oh mum, I just learnt that three days ago'.

"And then I just pulled both of my girls in together and we said a prayer of gratitude to the man above."

The incident highlighted swimming skills were a "must, not a plus", Jacqui said.

Ilynah was a keen swimmer and was considering training as a lifeguard in the future.

She said it was a good feeling being able to help other people out.

Gareth Leadbeater, associate principal of Onehunga High School, was "blown away" when he heard about the rescue.

"Very, very proud of the girls in terms of what they've done. Especially in terms of actually having the confidence to see somebody in trouble and actually recognise that she needed to help."

Surf Life Saving New Zealand's Community Education Manager Claire Cotter said "community education is our number one preventative measure".

Last summer eight people lost their lives in drowning incidents that Water Safety New Zealand deemed "preventable".

And surf life saving officials fear more people will needlessly die at our beaches due to stretched resources and a lack of funding.

Matt Williams, Surf Life Saving Northern Region chief executive, said more than $9 million in additional funding was needed over the next three years for essential upgrades.

Williams said in the last financial year, the service brought in a little less than $7.1 million. Currently, 32 per cent of SLSNR's annual funding was considered volatile, and at risk of not being available for future years

In mid-2018, Auckland Council allocated the northern region $3.7m in funding to support upgrades of facilities at North Piha, Kariotahi and Orewa.

Williams cited population growth and a spread in holiday hotspots as factors driving pressures for more funding.

Drownings, and near drownings, at spots like Goat Island in recent years made it clear there was a need to expand the list of locations where the service operated.

Pakiri Beach head life guard Craig Gledhill, in front of the temporary tower built to provide an observation point on the sand dunes. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Pakiri Beach head life guard Craig Gledhill, in front of the temporary tower built to provide an observation point on the sand dunes. Photo / Jason Oxenham

He said successive years of funding shortfalls were now having a "significant impact". And he said that made it difficult to deliver plans to expand services at surf hotspots.

"If we expand with the current resource we're going to stress the movement, we're going to stress the volunteers with additional hours. We need to be able to have a quantity of guards who are well trained . . . to provide the service."

Williams said there was a need to extend coverage or provide more service at locations like Piha, Muriwai and the other West Coast beaches.

A Government spokesperson confirmed talks were under way, regarding assistance needed by the service.

For the third summer running the team at Pakiri Beach has built a scaffolding tower, in lieu of a permanent lifeguard tower. Photo / Jason Oxenham
For the third summer running the team at Pakiri Beach has built a scaffolding tower, in lieu of a permanent lifeguard tower. Photo / Jason Oxenham

At Pakiri Beach, north of Auckland, a man drowned the Saturday after the final weekend patrol last summer.

Craig Gledhill, who coordinated the Red Beach patrol at Pakiri, said the drowning was a "contributing factor" to the extended patrol dates at Pakiri this summer.

He believed the incident was preventable if funding and resources had enabled additional patrols.

Patrols at Red Beach would now run from late December to the end of March - a longer period than in previous years.

"We need better facilities, because we still really only patrol up there under a pop-up tent," Gledhill said.

"This will be the third summer that we've built a scaffolding tower so that we've got an observation point on the sand dunes."

A Government spokesperson said the water safety sector was funded through a wide range of sources, including Government funding, fuel levies, NZ search and rescue and local councils.

"A significant programme of work is under way, in partnership with the sector, to consider all of these different sources of funding and to work out the best way to ensure the sector's long-term sustainability."

This work was expected to be complete by mid-2019.