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Senior Sergeant Craig Dinnissen, of Dunedin, said the two men, aged 41 and 35, were intoxicated when one of them became caught in a rip at an unpatrolled stretch of beach south of the Brighton Domain.
The other intoxicated man went to help but was also caught in the rip, he said.
"The other guy thought that he'd be a saviour and he got taken out as well.''
The incident has spurred a surf life-saver to issue a warning about beaches at Ocean View and south of the patrolled beach at Brighton, which she says are dangerous and riddled with rips.
Brighton Surf Life Saving Club president Rebecca Aburn said near the start of yesterday’s patrol, about noon, a woman rushed to the club to report two swimmers were "in a lot of trouble" at a nearby stretch of beach known locally as Back Beach, near Big Stone Rd, south of the township.
Surf life-savers deployed in an inflatable rescue boat but by the time they had rounded the head past the Domain the men had already been saved by the unknown good Samaritan, who left the scene shortly after.
Police, St John and the Brighton Volunteer Fire Brigade were called to the scene and St John paramedics took one person into an ambulance because they had swallowed a lot of water.
Unconfirmed reports suggested the rescuer was an off-duty surf life-saver.
Mrs Aburn said beaches either side of Brighton could be dangerous and she urged swimmers to stick to the main patrolled beach.
"Anywhere along Ocean View and Back Beach has got a lot of rips, and they are quite dangerous beaches."
Surf life-savers were conducting roving patrols to Ocean View, especially near the reserve, to keep an eye on swimmers and suggest swimming in the patrolled area, she said.
Later yesterday afternoon at Tomahawk Beach, Ocean Grove, police received reports of a kayaker swept towards rocks. A police spokesman said he managed to make his own way back to shore.