19 Jan 2023

'Quick dip and a swim' turns deadly for family group

11:01 am on 19 January 2023
Surf Lifesaving crews at Opoutere Beach after a group of seven people signalled for help.

The search continued on Wednesday evening for a person who was still missing. Photo: RNZ / Rayssa Almeida

It's been one of the biggest rescue efforts this summer, and one witness says the outcome could have been much worse.

Emergency services were alerted around 11.30am yesterday after several swimmers needed to be pulled from the water at Opoutere Beach, north of Whangamatā.

The incident follows another drowning south of Whangamatā on Tuesday.

Senior Sergeant Will Hamilton of Whangamatā police said the shoreline and water-based search would continue today, and a fixed-wing aircraft would also search the area from the air.

"Police ask that anyone who finds items of interest on the coastline to please hand them into police at Whangamatā Surf Club."

Former lifeguard and rescue helicopter worker Tony Brooks was visiting Opoutere Beach with his partner Kathy, a nurse yesterday.

They stumbled upon a rescue mission of about 20 people, two of them also doctors, dragging swimmers out of the water, and leapt into action.

Opoutere Beach - scene of 1 drowning, 1 missing

A search-and-rescue underway at Opoutere Beach with one swimmer still missing. Photo: Supplied / Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust

Six people were rescued from the sea: one in a serious but stable condition, who was airlifted to Waikato Hospital, four in minor to moderate conditions, and another who later died.

A search-and-rescue effort is still underway for a missing person. It was assisted by a fixed-wing aircraft late yesterday afternoon.

Brooks said the group was a family of seven with a bach nearby, who likely encountered bad conditions while swimming.

"While the waves were large, it certainly wouldn't be unfathomable to think you'd just go in for a quick dip and a swim," he said.

Surf Lifesaving crews at Opoutere Beach after a group of seven people signalled for help.

Surf Life Saving's operation supervisor Laura Stephens said lifeguards were working with police to search for the missing person. Photo: RNZ / Rayssa Almeida

But large waves weren't the only danger.

He explained that just out from shore, the beach has a steep drop-off.

"What's happened is they've probably just walked into the water, had a bit of a play around and then just gone over the edge," he said.

Brooks said a local had described to him watching the family get sucked out behind the waves, where they fought to get back ashore.

Without the group's help, it could have been much worse.

"What it was was a collection of some really good people there who were able to assist the situation," he said.

Brooks believed the collective specialist skill-set of those involved helped save many of those pulled from the water.

Not only this, he said a surf life-saving rescue board had been left on the beach. It was used by one of the rescuers to bring in some of those stuck in the rip.

Brooks, who had never seen this before, praised whoever had left the board there, stating had it not been there, there could have been further tragedy.

Opoutere Beach - scene of 1 drowning, 1 missing

The scene of yesterday's incident at Opoutere Beach. Photo: Supplied / Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust

Warning not to swim on unpatrolled beaches

Surf Life Saving's national lifesaving manager Andy Kent said the area where the family were rescued was an unpatrolled beach.

Any unpatrolled beach was not suitable for swimming, he said.

"In swells like this, you shouldn't be taking risks because the swells can be very unpredictable."

Coromandel Surf Life Saving said it was vital people stick to swimming at patrolled beaches this summer.

Regional Supervisor Laura Beanland-Stephens said life guards were on hand to help people at patrolled beaches.

"Do head down to a lifeguarded beach, their hours generally are 10 till 6 over the summer period and swim between those flags.

"If you do see someone in trouble we ask you to call 111 and ask for the police and they have a direct line through to us so we can come and assist."

Meanwhile, Water Safety New Zealand chief executive Daniel Gerrard said while lifeguards did a great job, just 2 percent of beaches were monitored currently.

He said there was a need to identify more patrol areas, particularly in holiday spots that were known to be popular and dangerous.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs