An attempt is due to get underway this morning to salvage a commercial fishing boat which hit rocks and sank in the Bay of Islands, sparking a mayday call and a pre-dawn rescue of three fishermen.

The drama began about 3.50am yesterday when a longline fishing boat with three men on board put out a distress call, saying the vessel had struck rocks and was taking on water.

Contact with the boat by VHF radio was soon lost but a signal was picked up from an Epirb emergency beacon at Whale Bay on the Purerua Peninsula.

Bay of Islands Coastguard volunteers were roused from bed and left Dove's Bay in their rescue boat at 4.20am. The Northland Electricity Rescue Helicopter was dispatched from Whangarei to join the search and winch the fishermen on board if necessary.

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When the 12m fishing boat, called Jan, was not found in Whale Bay the rescuers began a shoreline search. The Coastguard crew went to investigate a light on shore and found the boat partly submerged in a cove near Howe Pt, north of the original search area. The three fishermen were perched on nearby rocks under a cliff. The rescue boat was able to nose up to the rocks allowing the men to climb aboard.

Coastguard spokeswoman Georgie Smith said the men were cold and shaken but coherent with only minor injuries. They were taken to Dove's Bay where they were checked by St John medics. It was unclear yesterday whether any had been transported to hospital.

Maritime New Zealand is investigating the accident, which occurred on a calm night in an area well-used by boats. The Northland Regional Council was notified amid concerns about the 1600 litres of diesel on board.

Harbourmaster Jim Lyle said an attempt was made yesterday morning to recover the vessel using a sea crane. By then it had sunk completely and was lying on its side at the entrance to a sea cave at the back of a small cove.

The boat appeared to be "pretty well wedged in" and could not be moved. A fresh attempt would be made at high tide this morning using divers and the sea crane.

It was likely the boat's fuel had escaped through its breather tubes. There was, however, no smell of diesel at the wreck yesterday morning and only a small trace on the surface.

Mr Lyle said the fuel would dissipate quickly due to warm water and sea movement at the site. Any remaining fuel would be recovered with the vessel.

Unlike two yachts that had run aground in recent weeks, the recovery got underway quickly because the owner had wreck insurance and contacted the council promptly.

Ms Smith said yesterday's rescue was a great example of different agencies working together. The vessel had more than one form of communication on board so when one failed another could be used, greatly reducing the search area and time needed to find the crew.

"The volunteers that responded were paged out from their homes to respond in the early hours and then returned to base and continued with their day jobs. It's remarkable really."

Meanwhile, a 7m yacht that came to grief on the Cavalli Islands, off Matauri Bay, in wild weather last week Tuesday has been salvaged. A Far North woman, one of two people on board, was airlifted to hospital with back injuries and burns after she and a kettle went flying when the boat was blown onto a beach on Motukawanui Island.

Heavy seas smashed the boat to pieces in the following days. A marine contractor removed the wreckage during the weekend and it was taken to Opito Bay yesterday.