WITNESSES watched in horror as three overseas-born surfers paddled out into a treacherous rip off Tallow Beach on Saturday morning.
Julien Ventalon, of Brisbane, was the first person to phone emergency services at 10.45am on Saturday when he noticed the trio get into trouble.
"I wanted to go for a surf and saw them," Mr Ventalon said.
"I thought I would wait and see how the surf was," he said.
Mr Ventalon watched the three get swept round the base of Cape Byron and immediately called triple-0.
One surfer, who eventually paddled into shore safely at Wategoes, was swept out away from the rocks and out of trouble.
The last fellow ... he tried to get up the rock, (but) the waves just washed him back off the rock
Mr Ventalon said he knew the first man was fine, but watched as the other two became stranded at the base of the cliffs.
Byron Bay-born local Alison Reid was watching whales with her mother when the disaster unfolded.
"I'd been looking at the rip and thought if anyone gets stuck in that ... the next minute I saw people stuck in the rip," she said.
Ms Reid said she yelled down to one man to "go with it" and let the rip take him north to calmer waters, which he did.
"That's when I saw two (other) heads bobbing about in the wash," she said.
She then saw one of the men clamber up the rock to temporary safety.
"The last fellow ... he tried to get up the rock, (but) the waves just washed him back off the rock," she said.
"He had his board, but it was getting smashed against the rocks.
"I could tell he wasn't strong enough."
"Another wave came and toppled over him ... that was the last I saw of him.
"He just went under."
Ms Reid, who grew up playing along the Byron coastline, said it was a very dangerous day.
"There's no way in the world any person from Byron Bay would have entered the water anywhere along Tallows yesterday," she said.
"There was backwash coming off the rocks, it was treacherous."