A 57-year-old canoeist is fortunate to be alive after capsizing and suffering severe exposure to the cold last night.

The Hamilton man had a narrow escape last night thanks to the personal locator beacon he was carrying when paddling off a Northland beach.

He was found severely hypothermic and barely still clinging to his homemade canoe when the rescue helicopter crew found him about 9pm.

The Rescue Coordination Centre said had the man not been carrying a distress beacon, he would not have survived in the remote location of Ripiro Beach, 20km north of the North Head entrance to Kaipara Harbour.

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A rescue swimmer from the NEST emergency helicopter crew, out of Whangarei, was lowered to the capsized canoe and the exhausted man simply "let go", said Search and Rescue mission coordinator Dave Wilson.

"This canoeist was found just in time. The helicopter rescue crew believed he had been in the water for two hours and had a very close call.

"He did the right thing by carrying a distress beacon. When he was struggling to get ashore through breakers and his canoe capsized, he was able to raise the alarm," Wilson said.

"He saved himself by activating his registered beacon to alert us of his location."

RCCNZ organised for the NEST helicopter and Coastguard crews from Kaipara to respond.

"We urge everyone going out on the water, into the bush, or working in remote locations such as farms, to carry a beacon and make sure it is registered with emergency contact details."