Nobbys search: Australian adventure ends in tragedy after international student is swept away in large surf

AUSTRALIA was meant to be the gift of a lifetime for Mohsin Awan.

The young Pakistani man crossed the world to Newcastle six months ago, embracing all that the region had to offer: he joined a cricket club, knuckled down in his studies at the University of Newcastle and enjoyed day trips in the picturesque Hunter Valley.

The 23-year-old's Australian adventure turned to tragedy on Sunday night, after he was swept away in rough surf at Nobbys Beach.

Authorities now fear the worst for Mr Awan, who was last seen taking photographs with a friend in the rock-ringed area known as Soldiers Baths, at the southern edge of the beach.

With an extensive search effort between Nobbys and Dudley beaches yet to find Mr Awan on Monday, senior police now describe the operation as a "retrieval", and have notified the High Commission for Pakistan as the search enters its third day.

A group of Mr Awan's devastated friends were gathered at Nobbys on Monday afternoon as emergency services desperately scoured the water in front of them.

They said they prayed for their friend to be found safe.

"We still have hope," said Bilal Akram, who played alongside Mr Awan at the Birmingham Gardens Cricket Club.

"He's a really lovely, friendly guy - we need to find him and pray that he is found."

Mudasar Zahid came to admire Mr Awan over a short period of time and said the 23-year-old business student was respected by many for his friendship and intelligence.

HOPE: Bilal Akram, centre, with other friends of missing University of Newcastle student Mohsin Awan. Picture: Marina Neil

HOPE: Bilal Akram, centre, with other friends of missing University of Newcastle student Mohsin Awan. Picture: Marina Neil

"He was really talkative, his classmates told me he was always making conversation with them," he said.

"He was a really, really nice guy. We didn't know him for long, but still we are missing him.

"It's tragic."

Mr Awan's parents, who live in the Pakistani city of Lahore, were told of their son's disappearance on Monday.

"They're in shock," Mr Akram said.

Lifeguards, Marine Rescue and the Westpac Rescue Helicopter concentrated much of Monday's search near Newcastle Ocean Baths, but the strength of the current saw sweeps as far as Dudley Beach.

Witnesses said Mr Awan and a friend, also 23, became caught in a rip after being swept from the rocks in large surf.

Holly Davidson, a worker at Swell kiosk at the pavilion, said everyone scrambled to help after the men after they were spotted panicking and fully clothed in the water shortly before 7pm.

Ms Davidson said swimmers and a surfer went to rescue the duo, but were only able to pull one of the men back.

"Those guys were amazing, they put their lives at risk, they jumped out into the rip," she said.

"They tried to get him but unfortunately he'd been dragged out quite far so they couldn't get to him.

"A man went out to try and get him but he just couldn't get there."

Ms Davidson said the ocean looked deceptively serene on Sunday.

"It was very low tide, lots of rips," she said.

"It looked quite calm until the big waves came over. It was just a big wave that picked them up and took them out."

Tony Leacy, an ex-firefighter who was at Nobbys as the emergency unfolded, said he saw the two men taking photographs by the water's edge before being washed out into the surf.

"They were probably about up to their knees in the water taking selfies and the next thing they were being washed across the beach," he said.

"One of them, the bigger guy, managed to grab onto the rocks but the other guy couldn't make it. He was only a few metres away from the rocks but you could tell neither of them could swim."

Veteran lifeguard Warren Smith said even strong swimmers could be caught out by Nobbys' strong rips, undertows and "big horseshoe" of rocks and ledges.

However, the now-retired Mr Smith said it was rare for to be a drowning at the iconic beach despite the challenging conditions.

"When you don't have lifeguards on duty and people get caught in those situations, it's terrible," he said.

"No one would have thought that was going to happen. I feel very sorry for the family."

Marine Rescue Newcastle Unit Commander Ron Calman said search efforts had so far been hampered by choppy water.

"The vision on the water is pretty limited," he said. "Where he's found all depends on the wind and currents."

The search resumed at 7am on Tuesday.

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