Kayaker drifts six hours after fall in to Whangarei Harbour

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Reotahi looking towards NZRC Mardsen Point. PICTURE/Michael Cunningham
Reotahi looking towards NZRC Mardsen Point. PICTURE/Michael Cunningham

A 10 minute paddle across Whangarei Harbour turned into a six hour ordeal with Mark Morgan clinging to a kayak at the mercy of the waves and sea currents in total darkness.

The 62-year-old, who works as a fitter at the New Zealand Refinery at Marsden Pt, launched from a jetty near the refinery and was only moments from reaching Reotahi when a current together with the waves flipped him out of his kayak about 6pm on Monday.

A full scale search and rescue operation was launched at 9.13pm when Mr Morgan's partner raised the alarm.

At 1am yesterday Mr Morgan was spotted by a rescue helicopter team using night vision goggles on their final sweep of the coast near the Ruakaka River Mouth entrance -- about 9km from his intended destination.

In a sea of darkness, rescuers had picked out a small flashing white light on Mr Morgan's lifejacket.

Back home recuperating yesterday, Mr Morgan said he had been making the return trip from Reotahi to the refinery for the past eight months.

"The wind wasn't that bad and was actually better than it had been in the morning."

But on Monday in rough sea conditions with the outgoing tide against strong northeasterly flipped Mr Morgan out of his kayak.

He immediately inflated his life jacket but it made it difficult for him to get himself back into the kayak.

Mr Morgan made the decision to deflate his life jacket but by then the kayak was swamped and he was swept out to sea.

Survival instincts kicked in and he wrapped his arms through the deck lines of the kayak and used it as a flotation device.

"I couldn't get back into it. I had no other choice but to stay with it, that was the only thing that was going to save me."

While drifting in the rough seas Mr Morgan kept telling himself to remain positive.

"I tried to keep my spirits up."

Northland Electricity rescue helicopter pilot Steve Couchman said a crew of four, all equipped with night vision goggles, had been directed by police to search the harbour.

They were then sent towards Waipu. On their return flight, and final sweep of the beach before the search was going to be called off, they spotted a small white light about 1.5km off shore.

The Whangarei coastguard vessel Circa searching nearby managed to pull the shivering Mr Morgan from the water.

"It was such a relief to see the Coastguard boat heading towards me and be heading back to shore, I'm so grateful to them. And to think they're all volunteers," Mr Morgan said.

"I owe them my life."

Northland police Search and Rescue's Senior Sergeant Cliff Metcalfe said Mr Morgan's decision to cross the harbour was reckless and he placed rescuers lives at risk.

"There was already a weather warning in place for Northland with heavy rain, gale force winds and atrocious conditions on the water."

Mr Metcalfe said Mr Morgan was pushed out of the harbour by the strong wind and out going current and was extremely lucky to be located at all.

"This incident is a reminder that people need to check the weather conditions before they go out in a boat. People also need to take some form of communication, such as a cellphone or marine radio so they can let others know if they get into trouble."

- Northern Advocate

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