Kids swim to safety as boatie disappears

By Abby Gillies, Kiri Gillespie of the Bay of Plenty Times

File photo / Fritha Tagg
File photo / Fritha Tagg

A Waihi beach fisherman has told of how he found an upside-down boat at Bowentown Heads last night, shortly before a search was mounted for a missing 52-year-old man.

The fisherman, Warren Coffey, said he and his friend were returning from a fishing trip when they saw the upside-down boat and approached it.

Mr Coffey noticed four people on an island waving for help. He approached them and realised they were children.

He asked them if anyone else was missing and when they told him their father had been with them but was now missing, Mr Coffey informed the coast guard.

He then took the children to shore.

Only one of the four survivors rescued after their boat was swamped by a rogue wave had been wearing a life jacket.

Rescue personnel have confirmed more life jackets were on board the vessel but they were not being used.

Sergeant Warren Shaw from the Waikato Search and Rescue Unit spoke with media this morning outside the Waihi beach coast guard.

He confirmed that five people were on the boat, including the 52-year-old man who is still missing. The four other people on the boat managed to swim to safety.

Three of these people are the missing man's children - aged 7, 15 and 23. A 14-year-old friend was also on the boat.

Sergeant Shaw said that as the boat was capsized by a wave, only the 7-year-old was wearing a life jacket. There were other life jackets on the boat but they were not in use.

Coastguard representative Brian Grimwood said the conditions at the time were moderate to rough.

When the boat capsized, all members of the party were separated but managed to return to the boat. It is unclear whether the missing man returned to the boat at this point. The members of the party were then separated a second time, and the man's three children and the 14-year-old friend managed to swim to Matakana Island.

On Matakana Island the four flagged down Coffey and his friend who were returning from a fishing trip.

Sergeant Shaw said the search was continuing for the missing man and this would be reassessed later today.

"We always hold a glimmer of hope but as the search progresses, we have to be realistic with what we are looking for."

The incident followed the drowning of a man in rough conditions at an unpatrolled beach in the Coromandel, prompting a warning from Surf Life Saving New Zealand.

The man, in his 40s, died at Opito Bay, northeast of Whitianga, about 2.45pm yesterday, the second of two beach deaths over the Auckland Anniversary long weekend.

The man was alive but unconscious when medics arrived, police said. He could not be revived.

Strong southeasterly winds and swells forced surf lifesavers to close nearby Hot Water Beach.

"There is no place we could deem safe to swim, due to the size of the swell and the rips coming through," said Surf Life Saving New Zealand club development officer Matthew Williams.

"We can't patrol every beach but we can educate every New Zealander. Know your limits."

The incident came about 15 hours after the discovery of the body of a Te Puke 26-year-old who had been long-line-fishing at Otamarakau beach in the Western Bay of Plenty. He was today named as Bennett William James White.

Meanwhile, a diver was in a moderate condition after being pulled from the water at Goat Island, on the east coast north of Auckland, about 3.30pm.

And three people with hypothermia were pulled from the water at Piha about 7.45 last night and flown to hospital by the Westpac helicopter.

Last year, 93 New Zealanders drowned, the second lowest total on record.

- APNZ with Bay of Plenty Times

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