The man at the centre of a search and rescue operation offshore from Waihi has been trying to turn his life around, friends and family say.

The 24-year-old Rotorua man went fishing with his brother-and-law and 10-year-old nephew in a 4m aluminium dinghy last night.

The search for them began just after midnight when it was reported the boat capsized as it attempted to cross the Bowentown Bar. The brother-in-law and nephew were found by another fisherman washed ashore this morning.

The boat which capsized at while crossing the Bowentown Bar overnight. One of the three people on board is still missing today. Photo/George Novak
The boat which capsized at while crossing the Bowentown Bar overnight. One of the three people on board is still missing today. Photo/George Novak

The multi-agency search for the 24-year-old continues today, joined by a group of 11 friends and family from Rotorua who travelled over to help.

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A Maketu Mongrel Mob member, who would only be known as George, said his friend had been in trouble with the law in the past but was working on changing his life for the better.

"It's a really sad occasion because [he] was a fit young man who had lots of potential and was working word to turn his life around," George said.

George said he was surprised his friend did not swim to shore like the others, as he regularly worked out and was in shape.

One of the last sightings of the man was of his clinging to the overturned boat during helicopter searches overnight.

"We are really shocked and saddened," George said.

Another friend who was part of the Rotorua search party said the man had been taking part in a course to help him transition better into the community.

"It's really sad because [he] was really looking forward to spending a couple of days with family members in Waihi."

The mother of the man's partner said he was "a strong boy" and they desperately hoped he was still alive "clinging onto something".

The Rotorua woman, who didn't want to be named, said her daughter had gone to Waihi to be part of the search.

The woman said she found out about the search first thing this morning. She's spent the rest of the day glued to her phone trying to find out updates.

She said her daughter introduced her to the man earlier this year and she immediately liked him and thought he was a "good boy" who was changing his ways.

She said he had been on a good path turning his life around and was part of an Eastside group in Rotorua that trained and boxed together.

"He's been turning away from that world, young ones and drugs. I've sat here myself and seen him turn it (drugs) down, he'd say 'no thanks I've just finished training'.

"It's not the news we want to hear but he's a strong boy and I just hope that he is holding onto something."

The boat was found washed ashore about two nautical miles north of the bar. Debris including seats and fuel cans have also been found.

The rescue area extends along the coast of Waihi to Bowentown.

Waikato police Search and Rescue co-ordinator Sergeant Vince Ranger said: "Our prime search is out at sea covering an area close to 30 square nautical miles, between the bar and the north end of Waihi [beach] near the rocks".

The name of the missing man has not been released by authorities.

- Additional reporting Kelly Makiha