Only the hardiest - or most foolhardy - surfers were willing to take on freakishly big waves that have crashed onto Northland's east coast.

On a beautiful fine day, the horizon was a wall of waves over 4 metres high when they thundered ashore on Sunday. The big sea was due to a combination of conditions, including an off-shore wind and a dense, unmoving depression to the east of East Cape.

Experienced surfers said anyone going into the water "would have to be mad".

Ruakaka resident and fire service volunteer Jeff D'Ath said he had only once before seen local surf as big. From his house on the ridge he could see surf breaking about 3km off-shore.


"It was so big it drove people off the beach away from the water. There was a tremendous undertow, you wouldn't want to be caught in it," Mr D'Ath said.

"It was a sight to behold."

Long time Ruakaka surfer and board maker Roger Hall described the surf as "massive".

"There were few surfers taking it on because there was so much water moving. It was good to watch and good to stay away from," he said.

Surprisingly, there was only one boating mishap of note - an anchored 5.6m motor launch was overturned and pummelled in big surf at Ngahau Bay, near Teal Bay. The owner, who had not been aboard at the time, was yesterday salvaging the damaged vessel that washed ashore overnight, Whangaruru Coastguard president Tony Coyle said.

Volunteer lifeguards on patrol at Ruakaka, who normally just patrol on weekends, were asked by the district council to return to the beach yesterday on account of the number of calls from the public concerned about the high swells. There were fewer people at the beach yesterday than on Sunday, and the swell had lessened so there were no rescues.

But on Sunday afternoon, a kayaker in the Ruakaka estuary got into trouble when his boat flipped in the high swells.

Ruakaka Beach Holiday Park owner Mike Abel said an off-duty volunteer lifeguard staying at the campground happened to see the kayaker flip, and contacted the surf club who got out the IRB to help.

Another small boat diced with disaster just off Karikari Peninsula after its engine failed but it was towed to safety before it could wash onto nearby rocks. The Whangarei Heads Beach surf patrol closed Ocean Beach in the mid-afternoon because of the extreme conditions.