Karioitahi Beach is popular, but its waters can be unpredictable.
Even when you swim between the flags on a patrolled beach, the ocean can change in an instant.
For mother-of-two Louise Newbury, that’s exactly what happened.
A confident swimmer herself, she had gone out in the Karioitahi waters near Waiuku with her two children and her friend’s child on Monday. They’ve been to that beach almost every day this year.
While just knee-deep, a wave caught them and they were pulled into a hole, in water several meters away from where they had started and almost twice as deep as Newbury is tall, she said.
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“The water had thrown us from one end to the other,” Newbury said.
“Because there were sand dunes in the water, it went from my knee to about twice the height of my body.”
Luckily for Newbury, her days as a flight attendant included lifeguard training, so she knew what to do at first, and was strong enough to hold her son Charlie, 5, above the waves as she treaded water.
But eventually it wasn’t enough, and after a couple of minutes she called out to her 13-year-old daughter Sienna to take Charlie from her, and she blacked out.
Moments later, a lifeguard made it to Newbury and kept her afloat, while an off-duty lifeguard went straight to Sienna and her friend Taylah, 12, and lifeguards on the shore brought the rescue boat out.
Off-duty lifeguard Jurjen Haitsma was swimming with his children too and had left the water when he started following a lifeguard down to the sea to help.
He quickly reached the teenagers and took them to the shore.
That they were swimming between the flags in clear view of the lifeguards on duty was the difference between their survival and a tragedy, Newbury said.
Taylah said she wouldn’t be getting back in the Karioitahi water in a hurry. On Monday night after the rescue, she and Sienna stayed up all night.
“We were scared we would wake up in the water,” she said.
Haitsma has been a lifeguard since early 2000, and is a Waiuku local. With more than two decades of experience under his belt, he still carries his earliest harrowing rescues with him.
His daughters are training as lifeguards too, and his 14-year-old is studying for his lifeguard exam at the moment. They live locally and want to be as prepared as possible.
Newbury said she’d always told local friends that the water at Karioitahi was fine, but now she’s a little spooked.
“I did everything right. I was swimming within the flags, I was holding my son’s hand and the two teenagers were literally knee-deep.
“But even in shallow water, you have got to be so careful. What I would recommend is people to actually ask the lifeguards, what’s the water like today? They know.”
Senior lifeguard at Karioitahi Shannon Swann, who was among the Newbury rescue team, said she and the other lifeguards were already on high alert on Monday evening.
It was an hour before low tide and the water was pulling strongly out to sea, taking swimmers northward. But they had Newbury and the children in their sights, and were able to respond very quickly when they got into trouble, she said.
“It’s been a harrowing last few weeks with anything water related, so for things to have a positive outcome is a big plus for what we’re doing,” she said.
New Zealanders, being surrounded by water, tended to overestimate their abilities and underestimate the conditions, as a lot of the danger wasn’t visible, Swann said.
“If you can’t spot a rip or a hole, all it takes is seconds,” she said.