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

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

A search got underway just after midnight after it was reported the boat capsized as it attempted to cross the Bowentown Bar.

Our concerns for the missing person are really high ... Every minute that goes past that is heightened.

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The brother-in-law and nephew were found washed ashore. They were treated for hypothermia and taken to hospital in what St John described as "moderate" condition.

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The boat was found about .75 nautical miles north of the bar. Debris also washed ashore, including seats and fuel cans.

The multi-agency search continued yesterday, joined by a group of friends and family from Rotorua who travelled to help.

A Maketu gang member, who would only be named as George, said the missing man 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 hard 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 fit.

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

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," she said.

The mother of the man's partner said yesterday he was "a strong boy" and she desperately hoped he was still alive "clinging on to something".

The Rotorua woman, who did not 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 yesterday and had spent the rest of the day glued to her phone trying to find out updates.

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 a group 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 [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 on to something."

Waikato police Search and Rescue co-ordinator Sergeant Vince Ranger told the Bay of Plenty Times the search had been suspended for the night, except for local surf club members continuing to search along the shoreline.

The police dive squad will join the search today and their search would centre on the area between the bar and where the boat was found.

Ranger said police had grave concerns for the missing man. The search area measured six nautical miles.

He confirmed there were only two lifejackets on board, one of which was worn by the missing fisherman's nephew.

The other was found during the search.

The missing man's family were naturally traumatised and were coping as best they could in the circumstances, he said.

"Our concerns for the missing person are really high ... Every minute that goes past that is heightened. We know a person has a limited time to survive in the environment he is in.

"Our concerns are that he drowned at sea.

"That is not necessarily the prime focus of our search, but it is the focus of one part of our search," Ranger said.

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

- Additional reporting Kelly Makiha