A Mount Maunganui resident who saved a 52-year-old man from drowning in Pilot Bay last night has played down his lifesaving efforts.

A police spokeswoman said the rescued man, who had been drinking on a boat earlier in the evening, had fallen out and tried to swim back to shore, but got into difficulties.

The man, who was taken to Tauranga Hospital by St John Ambulance staff, was treated and discharged, a hospital spokeswoman said.

The man's rescuer Ross Herd, 25, from Pilot Bay has been described as a hero by an eyewitness and in Facebook posts.

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Herd told the Bay of Plenty Times he was uncomfortable with the label "hero".

"It's really nice to have people say what I did was heroic but I just simply doing what any other person would have done when someone gets into difficulties and needs your help."

Herd said the rescue unfolded about 7.30pm as he, his partner Daisy Corby and some friends were heading to a nearby pub for a farewell drink for one of their mates.

"I was skating along and my partner was cycling on the other side of the road and we soon realised the man's desperate cries for help were coming from the water."

Herd said he ran across the road and immediately stripped down to his underwear and began swimming out to the man still calling out for help, while his partner rang 111.

"I couldn't see him at first but when I spotted the man about 100 to 150 metres from shore he was really struggling. He kept going under and coming back up again," he said.

Herd said as he got closer the man started "really panicking" and was pleading with him to save him and had to reassure the drowning man he was there to do exactly that.

The rescued man was wearing a heavy woollen jersey and jeans and had a bag strapped across his back, and also had two oars from a boat still grasped in his hands, he said.

"I eventually managed to get to him to calm down and turn onto his back and I grabbed onto the backpack and started dragged him back to shore," he said.

As they got to shore, police turned up and shortly after an ambulance arrived.

The rescued man, who was clearly exhausted and could hardly stand up, became "quite emotional" and kept thanking him for saving him, Herd said.

"I was just relieved things ended the way they did and also happy to put my clothes back on again as I was pretty cold and finally drink that beer I'd been looking forward to."

Tauranga locals Elena Housley and Mike King had just arrived at the beach and were sitting on a bench talking when they heard a faint cry "like a whisper" in the distance.

Housey said the voice was calling out "help me, help me" but it was so dark they couldn't see anyone at first until King got his high-powered torch.

Housey said they then saw movement in the water and spotted someone swimming out to the man still crying out for help and called 111.

"I called out to him to stay calm and told him someone was coming and we saw Ross managed to reach him and started dragging him back to shore.

Housey said there is no doubt in her mind that Herd saved the man from drowning.

"Ross did a great thing and he is a hero in my mind as it was pitch black. He could easily have drowned himself if the rescued man in his panic had pushed him under,' she said.