Riley Massey's lifeguard training came in handy as he dragged a drowning man 20 metres to safety through Wellington Harbour's wintry swells.
The Helipro base manager, who was a lifeguard for 10 years at the notoriously dangerous Piha Beach, was the first to the water's edge at Queens Wharf on Monday when co-workers heard "unusual noises" coming from the sea outside their office window.
"I was just in the office when the ladies came running down the stair yelling, ‘There's someone in the water,' " Mr Massey said.
He spotted the man about 20 metres out to sea, barely staying afloat.
He yelled out, telling the man to swim towards him, but received no response.
"There was no way he was going to swim over to the ladder.
"At that point I stripped down to my boxers and my socks and jumped in."
He swam out to the man, who was making intelligible noises but was largely unresponsive. "He just had nothing left, no energy."
Mr Massey dragged him back to the edge of the wharf, where the pair were picked up by a police boat. As soon as it was clear the man was safe, Mr Massey dashed back to the Helipro office for a hot shower.
"I didn't really feel the water till I got out, just because of the adrenaline. But it was chilly."
The 39-year-old man was taken to Wellington Hospital and, despite initial reports that he had suffered only mild hypothermia, has been in the intensive care unit in a serious condition since.
Sergeant Andrew Cox, of Wellington Maritime Police, praised Mr Massey as a hero. "One stranger jumping into the sea for another stranger, that shows the best side of human nature. Without it, the guy would have drowned, no question."
But Mr Massey played down his actions. "If someone else had been there, they would have done the same thing."
Mr Cox said police had not yet talked to the man in hospital and it was unclear how he had ended up so far from shore.
- The Dominion Post