A Waikato builder single-handedly saved three people from drowning, one who was just moments from death if not for his heroic actions.

James Gray, a self-employed builder, headed out to Sunset Beach for a lunchtime surf on Tuesday while concrete set at a property in Port Waikato.

While he was surfing the waves he noticed three people swimming in what looked to be a relatively safe spot.

He finished his surf then went back to the car park to get changed and head back to work.

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But as he looked out over the surf he could see the three people, two men and one woman, heading towards a rip at the centre of the beach.

"I thought to myself 'they are getting too close to the rip'."

"By the time I was back at the car park, they had moved to this big rip at the middle of the beach, within two minutes they were pulled into the rip."

He surveyed the empty beach and saw there were no lifeguards on duty.

It was just seconds after spying the troubled trio that he sprinted towards the water with his surfboard tucked under his arm.

"So I headed out there. There was no one else around and no lifeguards around, no one around that had anything would float.

"You wouldn't have been able to stay in the rip without a float."

Being a surfer, Gray went into the rip with confidence as he was familiar with it and had used it to access good waves.

He bolted for a man who was closest to the shore.

Gray said the man was visibly exhausted and moments from drowning.

"I reckon he had another 30 seconds before he was going under for good."

Gray paddled towards him and after circling the rip several times managed to haul the man onto his board.

"I got him on the surfboard, the others were still yelling and swimming. I could tell they still had energy."

After a 10-minute struggle, he managed to get the man to waist-deep water where he dropped him off, caught his breath, and headed back out.

Gray managed to pluck the two remaining swimmers out of the water and onto his board without too much trouble.

But the rescue was far from over, he said.

"We sat in the current and caught our breath, then we paddled to the northern end of the beach.

They clung onto his board and discussed a strategy to get back to shore.

Gray told the duo they would use the whitewash to carry them back to safety.

"I just said 'it's gonna hit, it will keep hitting us, but it is working in our favour'."

They were bashed by the waves repeatedly, going under six times, until it eventually carried them to safety.

After they made it back to shore they thanked him for his heroics.

Meanwhile, Brian Bowmar and his partner Cheryll bore witness to Gray's heroics.

"I was down there with my partner, walking along the beach, and she heard a cry for help and then we saw someone out in the rip putting their arm up," Bowmar said.

"I thought 'geez I have to go get my boogie board' so I went back to our motorhome which was about two minutes away, and just as I went up I saw James come down with his surf board.

"By the time I got back down to the beach, James was bringing the first guy in - he only just got him in the nick of time. He was on his last legs.

"I headed out but I lost a flipper on the way so was pretty slow. James powered past me again and by the time I got out there I could see he had picked up both of them."

Afterwards, Bowmar spoke with one of the rescued women and said she was "really shaken and exhausted".

"She told me 'that is the most scary thing that has ever happened to me in my whole life'."

"I told James what he had done was amazing, he saved three lives. I asked to get his photo but he didn't want any fuss made. He was a very modest guy," Bowmar said.

"I was pretty useless but James was the man. He was just fantastic and very modest. He did a great job and deserves the recognition."

After the dramatic rescue James Gray went back to work like any other day.

At work, Gray went into a panic thinking one of the three may have drowned later with all of the water they had taken on.

But the trio contacted him the following day, thanking him again and confirming they were okay.

He said although no lifeguards were on duty, he wanted to recognise the hard work surf lifesavers do to keep beaches safe.

"They save lives every day. But, when they can't be there other community members like anglers and surfers are there to help."