Do-or-die decisions that saved an Argentinian family from drowning on Lake Rotorua were formally praised at a ceremony at Waitetī marae today .

Ngongotahā father Tawhanga Rika and his younger brother Matariki Rika, 13, were awarded NZ Humane Society Bronze medals and citations and medals for bravery to honour their water rescue last summer.

On the afternoon of January 17, three members of an Argentinian family were swept 2km out towards Mokoia Island, after kayaking around the shoreline near their motel, Jack and Di's.

Citations and medals for bravery were awarded to Tawhanga (left) and Matariki Rika. Photo / Andrew Warner
Citations and medals for bravery were awarded to Tawhanga (left) and Matariki Rika. Photo / Andrew Warner

The weather drastically changed when the parents and their 12-year-old son were paddling, bringing forceful wind and waves.

Advertisement

A description of events from the Humane Society said: "Their kayaks started to capsize and with swimming being a difficulty for the family, they started to panic. A bystander soon paddled out to assist after an alarm was raised sent from the distressed daughter.

"However, he became involved in the difficulty and capsized as well. Tawhanga Rika saw the distress the bystander and family were in and launched his motorised kayak with his younger brother Matarika into the water towards the victims.

From left: Tawhanga Rika, Wally Haumaha, Matariki Rika and Clayton McMillan at the award ceremony at Waitetī marae. Photo / Andrew Warner
From left: Tawhanga Rika, Wally Haumaha, Matariki Rika and Clayton McMillan at the award ceremony at Waitetī marae. Photo / Andrew Warner

"Taking charge of the situation, and with language being a considerable barrier, Tawhanga and Matarika successfully rescued all four individuals before securing his kayak near the capsized kayaks by tying them together with rope. Tawhanga individually pulled each victim into his own vessel before taking them safely to shore."

The society said "the victims could have faced possibilities of injury or even death" if the Rikas hadn't been there.

Today, the brothers said they were "very proud, honoured and privileged" to have received the awards.

"We are also very thankful to the people who set up the day for us," Tawhanga said.

When Tawhanga spoke to the Rotorua Daily Post about the rescue earlier this year, he said he was sitting down for dinner when his neighbour alerted him to the situation.

Tawhanga Rika could see the tourists struggling about 2km out on the lake. Photo / File
Tawhanga Rika could see the tourists struggling about 2km out on the lake. Photo / File

"My neighbour came across because he knew I had a boat and it was already launched and ready to go."

Advertisement

The boy had fallen into the lake without a lifejacket.

"There had been a fella already out there trying to help them but he was getting dragged under by them as well. [He] was able to put a lifejacket on the son and pulled him on to his kayak so they were just drifting."

Tawhanga Rika used his motorised kayak to get the tourists back to shore. Photo / Supplied
Tawhanga Rika used his motorised kayak to get the tourists back to shore. Photo / Supplied

Rika said the family did not speak English and he believed the language barrier made it hard for them to co-operate as they kept "freaking out".

Problems continued as Rika's kayak could only fit three adults so he decided to take the mother and son into shore first.

"As I was going out I didn't realise how bad the situation was but it was actually pretty bad. They were nearly sinking in their boats but I could see them from the shore of our house and it looked like they were paddling normally."

Attendees at the NZ Royal Humane Society ceremony at Waitetī marae. Photo / Andrew Warner
Attendees at the NZ Royal Humane Society ceremony at Waitetī marae. Photo / Andrew Warner

Rika brought the father and the other helper in next which he described as an overall "intense moment".

He said for more than an hour he had to calm them down and try to communicate through hand actions due to their little knowledge of English.

"It was quite the adrenaline rush."

Jack & Di's Lakefront Motel operator Kai Liao. Photo / Andrew Warner
Jack & Di's Lakefront Motel operator Kai Liao. Photo / Andrew Warner

At today's ceremony, Jack and Di's owner Kai Lao said the family had been warned not to veer from shore and had signed forms to be able to use the kayaks.

"They didn't realise the potential risk," he said.

"It was almost a tragedy, they almost drowned. We were very lucky the Rikas were so brave... We didn't know what would happen if four beautiful lives were lost."

Liao said he felt "very proud to be part of the Ngongotahā community".