By Whakatane Beacon
Boaties and surfers sprang into action on Sunday afternoon when massive swells pushed charter boat passengers overboard at the Whakatāne Heads.
The drama, which saw the Bandit almost capsize as it attempted to cross an unworkable bar, was described as "hair-raising" by a boatie who helped bring the passengers to safety.
The Whakatane Beacon understands three people went overboard – two men, aged 52 and 78, fell in and a third person jumped in after them to assist.
Maritime New Zealand is aware of the incident and confirmed yesterday that it was making inquiries. However, a decision has not yet been made regarding an official investigation.
Despite safe conditions in the morning when the Bandit departed, the bar had become unworkable by high tide.
The boat was reportedly spun around by a wave while attempting to return to port, causing the passengers to fall overboard.
Sitting just beyond the bar, waiting for a safe gap between waves in which to cross, Mark Dobson heard concerning updates over the radio.
"We were sitting out there, floating around the Bandit … and we heard reports over the radio of two or more people in the water somewhere," he said.
"We floated around there looking for what would have been a good 20 minutes, before we actually managed to hear one of the people in the water yelling."
Dobson and his passengers heard a faint "yo!" in the waves nearby and on moving towards the sound, they saw a hand shoot up into the air from the water.
"It was a bit of a race to get over to them as fast as we could," Dobson said.
The young man who had alerted them was assisting a 78-year-old man as they clung to a floatation device.
Dobson said that without the young man's assistance, tragedy would have been inevitable.
"I told the lad, 'man you saved this guy's life'."
Surfers assisted the third person who went overboard, giving him a surfboard to cling to while Dobson and his crew made their way over.
"Just by the condition those two older men were in, I don't think they would have survived the ordeal because those waves were pretty big," Dobson said.
Witness Charlie Cole was one of hundreds watching from the riverbank.
"It was very scary to watch," Cole said.
"The charter boat was entering the bar very slowly and instantly got hit side on with a big swell and was so close to going under.
"The boat was hit again by four or more waves that thrashed the boat and around three of the people on board jumped off the boat and a couple of surfers came to the rescue."
Two more witnesses, Tim Drinkwater and his wife, were enjoying the sunshine when they saw the boat nearly capsize.
"Me and my wife saw the boat come in and almost roll over. It was definitely a shock," he said.
Dobson didn't see the initial wave that pushed the Bandit off course, but he acted quickly once he knew something was wrong.
Coast Guard Whakatane assisted in recovering the three who had fallen overboard and brought them ashore where St John ambulance were waiting.
A St John spokesperson said they were notified of the incident at around 1.50pm, dispatching two ambulances to the scene.