A man who was taken to Waitakere Hospital in a serious condition after his friends drowned at Piha Beach has been released to recover at home.
Three men had gone out into the middle of a long-standing rip at the notorious Piha Beach on Saturday evening wearing jeans.
Two of the men were dragged out in the rip, while the third man made a lucky escape and raised the alarm.
Off-duty lifesavers were just 300 metres away, but they told ONE News there was little they could do.
"When we arrived there was one guy who had made it back to the beach, already on the beach.
"And he was quite hysterical, sort of yelling for his mates who were still out there," said Kris O'Neill, Senior Lifeguard said yesterday.
That sparked a race to find the missing friends.
"It's pretty dramatic 'cause everyone's obviously desperate to find them," O'Neill said.
"We're quite acutely aware of the time scale we've got. So, obviously you've only got about five minutes once the drowning process starts to actually find them and get them back."
Fifteen lifeguards searched the land and water and vehicles scanned the beach.
They also had lookouts on Lion Rock and two helicopters in the air, but hope quickly faded.
Logan Adams of Surf Lifesaving, Northern Region said yesterday that the area concerned was off limits.
"The area they've gone swimming is a real big no-go zone for us. We really actively try to keep people away from that area," he said.
Rescuers say the sole survivor beat the odds to make it out.
As it was, the sea gave the men back on the north side of Lion Rock, almost exactly the same spot it had taken them.
They were found by searchers on a quad bike on Sunday morning.
Water Safety New Zealand's Matt Claridge said "going in the water in your clothes is pretty much stupid".
"The extra weight that it's going to put on you is something that you can't really prepare for, and you're going to get pulled straight down."
He said wearing jeans in the water is particularly dangerous as there's probably no other piece of clothing that is going to soak up and weigh you down more.
Claridge said warning signs are key to preventing drowning, but so too is people understanding that if you're going to swim outside the patrolled hours you need to act responsibly and you need to be able to pick out a rip.
The death toll from drowning for 2013 is already 20.
But Claridge said New Zealand's drowning toll to date is actually lower than it has been in previous years.