As Jarrett Simeon was rapidly dragged out to sea by a harsh rip at a "notorious" swimming beach, his best friends started swimming desperately to save him.
Instead they got into trouble themselves, then watched helplessly as he drifted out of sight and disappeared under water.
Mr Simeon, 27, a Feilding meat-worker, had been swimming at Himatangi Beach at 2pm on Saturday when he and his girlfriend Morgan McKay started getting into difficulty.
Two friends, Carlos Ceaser and Te Piwa Riwai, swam out as far as Ms McKay, helping her stay afloat while a surfer came to their rescue.
All had been swimming away from the patrolled area on a beach with a "notorious" reputation for drownings, police say.
A third friend, Nathan McClutchie, ran to alert lifeguards.
More than 100 rescuers, family and friends then scoured the beach through the night until 5.50am yesterday when Mr Simeon's body was found.
Yesterday, a tearful Pauline McClutchie, mother of Nathan, said the friends had watched as Mr Simeon was sucked away by the rip.
"He was just there, he was so close, and then he was gone, and they couldn't find him.
"Nathan saw them waving in the water, he knew they were in trouble, so he told the others to go and save them and he ran off to get help.
"Now he's guilty and thinks he should have gone in because he was the strongest swimmer."
Just moments before his friends had headed out for a swim Mr McClutchie had warned them of the danger, she said.
"He told Jarrett before he went in ‘If you get into trouble just float, don't fight it'."
Palmerston North surfer Hamish said his party was next to Mr Simeon's on the beach when they got into trouble. He surfed out to the struggling swimmers, who held on to his board.
He thought Mr Simeon had become exhausted from helping keep his partner afloat.
Friend and co-worker Adam Zentveld said Mr Simeon was "a really open guy".
"He was a real good friend, always open and that to talk to. I'm really going to miss him."
Palmerston North Surf Club patrol captain David Pontin said the swimmers were about 800m outside the flags and lifesavers were not watching them when they became distressed.
The ocean dropped away suddenly in that area, causing a small rip and an undertow. The death was at least the fourth in the area in the past eight years.
THE HOLIDAY TOLL
There were three drownings over the holiday period - the lowest number since 2006-07.
On Christmas Eve, Jason Johns, 43, drowned at Whiritoa beach on the Coromandel while swimming outside of the patrolled area.
Robert Farquhar, 29, disappeared and drowned while diving with friends at Matakatia Bay on December 29.
The following day, Oscar winner Mike Hopkins drowned when his inflatable raft flipped on the Waiohine River.
Last year 10 drowned in the 10-day period, which ended on January 3.
- The Dominion Post