Surf lifesaving bosses are crediting extended patrol hours with a zero drowning toll at beaches they covered over summer.
But funding for the vital service continues to be short.
An extra $730,000 is needed for the next financial year to keep the 17 surf lifesaving clubs operating at the same level as last summer, Surf Life Saving Northern Region chief executive Matt Williams said.
SLSNR lifeguards performed 350 rescues and 601 assists during their 2017-18 season, from Labour Weekend to around Easter Weekend. That was up from 752 rescues and assists last summer.
There were no drownings at the 22 beaches they covered - from Raglan north on the west coast around North Cape, and south to the Auckland City beaches - during patrolled hours.
"That's an absolutely huge feat," Williams said.
He credits extended patrol hours at high-risk beaches from the standard 10am-6pm time to as early as 9am and late as 8pm.
The northern region had 2500 volunteer lifeguards at beaches over summer.
"In the past, that time in the early evening when the patrols have ceased and the flags are down was often when people got into difficulties and couldn't be rescued in time to avoid a tragedy. I don't think it's pure coincidence that, this year, drownings during patrolled hours were nil," Williams said.
Patrols also continued at some beaches for weeks after the traditional end of season.
That meant lifeguards, who ranged in age from 14 to 75, giving more of their time – 61,244 hours, up from 60,832 last year.
"I'm full of admiration for their efforts – at times they were out on their feet," Williams said.
"They've persevered through a lot of challenges; some clubs have had funding reduced, all have had busy seasons and the continued good weather led some clubs to continue patrols well past the traditional end of season date."
The organisation had approached regional councils and gaming and grants funders for extra financial assistance to reach their $5.5 million operating budget.
"We won't be able to deliver to the necessary level of service if we don't have that funding," Williams said.
"The aim is still to be in every place surf lifesavers were this last summer."
He said an extra $12m per annum was needed for capital expenditure – on things like repairing buildings, many of which were 60 years old – and investment in technology such as drones and digital capability for its emergency radio network.
SNSLR has put a proposal to the Government for financial support.
"Conversations have begun," Williams said. "But it is worth noting, they've just released their new budget. And there's been no accommodation made for surf life saving in there."
Surf lifesaving was seen in many quarters as a charity rather than the essential emergency service it was, he said.
"We need to stop being funded as a nicety and more as a necessity."
In the 2017-18 season, SLSNR lifeguards:
• Performed 350 rescues and 601 assists, carried out 899 first aid treatments, carried out 193 searches and made 37,012 safety interventions involving 115,304 people.
• Helped educate more than 12,000 school-aged children in beach safety.
Swept out to sea
Sucked back in the surf following a freak wave, Theo Crawford, 15, frantically called for help as he and big brother Marty, 20, lost sight of the shoreline.
"I had my arm in the air and I was ... trying to wave out and I was yelling out," Crawford recalls of his terrifying ordeal at Karioitahi beach in March.
"My brother put me on his back and tried swimming back in, and we just couldn't."
The Waiuku College student said he and Marty were about 100m offshore, in water around rib height, when he spotted the wave coming towards them.
"I was trying to go back in 'cause I saw it was big, but it was still pulling me back.
"It just got super deep and took us out.
"I was really scared. I thought it was just going to keep taking us out."
With the beach out of sight, Marty stayed with him telling him to stay calm and reassuring him, "It'll be alright, someone will come out".
That someone turned out to be a young lifeguard who sprang into action to rescue the pair.
"I yelled out 'Help!' to her. And she said, 'Yeah I'm coming'," Crawford said.
"When she got to me, she just put her arm around me and I was like, 'Thank you'."
The lifeguard helped them to safety, guiding the brothers through a succession of waves on their return to shore.
"Every time ... a wave would get close, she'd go, 'Three, two, one, dive', and then we'd dive under and swim forwards a bit."
Back on the beach, Crawford, out of breath and having "swallowed a lot of water", was cared for by another lifeguard until he recovered.
Both he and his brother were reasonable swimmers and the surf was not too rough that day, he said, but he was surprised at how quickly conditions could change in the water.
He was incredibly grateful to both the surf lifesavers and is now considering training to become one himself.