Whanganui surf lifesavers have received the national Search and Rescue Gold Award for Operational Activity.

The award recognises the skill and bravery displayed in the rescue of a father and his teenage daughter from cliffs at Kai Iwi Beach in hazardous conditions in February 2018.

The pair had been reported missing, and it was feared they had been swept out to sea. The Coastguard were on standby, but the sea was too rough for them to join the search.

Within minutes, the first surf lifesaving crew of Laura O'Keefe and Alex Forlong were on the water in an IRB (inflatable rescue boat) while lifeguards Kaya Dobbie and Matthew Newell set up a command centre in the nearby watchtower.

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The swimmers were spotted quickly, but were on a slippery ledge, 3m up the Mowhanau cliffs, trying to escape punishing waves.

O'Keefe manoeuvred the IRB close enough for Forlong to swim to the pair, but the storm forced her against the rocks, injuring her hand. She was taken back to shore and lifeguards Clarissa Nowak and Sophie Couper joined the rescue.

Meanwhile, an attempt was made to winch the swimmers by helicopter, but the conditions were too rough to get close to the pair safely. Pulling them up to the top of the cliffs with ropes was also ruled out because of the probability of falling rocks. So the IRBs were the only chance for rescuers to reach the cliffside perch.

In 5m swells, O'Keefe guided the IRB close to the cliffs, timing her bursts of throttle to strategically hop the boat between small sheltered patches behind large outcropping rocks. Nowak judged her moment between swells and swam to the cliffs then quickly climbed to the ledge to reach the pair.

She began first aid on the girl's injured ankle, which was suspected to be broken.

A second IRB joined the rescue, and senior lifeguard Phil Gilmore also made the tricky swim to the ledge to help.

The two lifeguards helped the girl scramble down the cliff and safely handed her to lifeguards on the first IRB. The father was unharmed and was helped to reach the second IRB by Gilmore.

"The lifeguards involved in this two-hour operation demonstrated courage and skill for this rescue", Search and Rescue New Zealand said.

The rescue was also awarded the Surf Life Saving NZ Rescue of the Year for 2018.

"Our lifeguards got there quickly, and once they realised the enormity of the peril that these two swimmers were in and the size of the surf they quickly rang in back-up," national surf lifesaving manager Allan Mundy said.

"That team definitely saved two lives, they're humble when you talk to them about it, but they made a massive difference to that family."