With the rotor blades just 3m from bushes on a cliff south of Paunaui, the Whitianga Westpac Rescue Helicopter was able to winch intensive care paramedic Ross Aitken down to the first of two stricken snorkellers as they clung to rocks in rising seas off Paunaui.
Two Auckland men had gone snorkelling off the south end of Pauanui in rough seas when they were reported missing by family at about 2pm on Saturday.
Tairua Police dispatched the local Tairua-Pauanui Coastguard volunteers who found the stricken men but radioed back that it was impossible to reach them by boat.
As the light faded, police quickly tasked the Whitianga Westpac Rescue Helicopter, and in 10 minutes the crew were above the men, some 500m to 1km south of Pauanui, formulating a game plan.
"We had a look at where they were and it was an extremely precarious position," says Aitken, who was lowered into the danger zone on a winch.
"One was in a tight spot on the cliff, the other was on the rocks. We had a quick discussion about what we were going to do because we try not to winch people if we can because it's very hazardous."
However with the Whangamata Surf Life Saving Club an hour and 15 minutes away, and an incoming tide and fading light, Aitken says they did not think there was any choice but to "go into a winch to get these guys".
Chief crewman Mark "Tinny" Cannell described it as one of his most trying rescues to date. As one of the most experienced winch operators in the country, he had to pull Aitken back up after losing sight of his crewmate on the first attempt to reach the man on the cliff.
Aitken was then given a radio and lowered back down past a ledge where he could not be seen by his crewmates.
"I gave them directions on which way to send me," Aitken says.
"The ledge was so small that I didn't have any room to put a foot onto it, and I managed to jam my fingers into a crevice and strap the guy into the harness and winch him off."
Meanwhile, the helicopter pilot had to hover 3m from vegetation at the top of the cliff.
When Aitken was winched down to collect the second man from rocks, he lost radio contact as waves broke over the top of them.
"The [rescued men] had been perched since about 2.30pm so it was four hours by the time we got them off," says Aitken.
He acknowledged the combined effort of Tairua-Pauanui Coastguard, St John Ambulance and the co-ordinating role and quick response by Tairua Police, as well as Whangamata Surf Lifesaving Club, who were stood down.
Both men were flown to Paunaui Airfield and later treated for hypothermia.
However, it was not all over for the Whitianga rescue helicopter crew, who had to turn back when blustery winds made it too dangerous to fly home to base.
"With conditions too rough to return to our Whiti base, our guys were treated to some good tucker at the Tairua Rugby and Sports Club with the College Rifles Rugby Team who were staying there overnight, and we kipped down at St John next door in Tairua.
"We want to thank Tairua and the visiting team College Rifles Rugby Club for looking after our crew."