A solo yachtie has been plucked to safety after his vessel's steering failed in high seas off the Bay of Plenty.

The exhausted 55-year-old Dunedin sailor is now back on land after a dramatic all-night rescue operation when his yacht ran into difficulties 70km northeast of Tauranga.

Tauranga Coastguard rescue skipper Chris Phillips said the man, weary from battling rough conditions for hours on his journey from Auckland to Dunedin, was hauled on board the rescue craft around 4.30am.

He has already left Tauranga.

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The stricken yacht has been left adrift after conditions were deemed too dangerous to tow it to port.

The man set off a distress signal at 8.15pm after experiencing major problems with the 9m yacht's steering and navigation lights.

A rescue helicopter found the stricken vessel battling seas whipped up by 35-knot winds approximately 20 nautical miles northeast of Mayor Island. It established communication before a cargo ship was redirected to the area.

The Kota Loceng arrived at 11pm. Photo / via marinetraffic.com
The Kota Loceng arrived at 11pm. Photo / via marinetraffic.com

Rescue Coordination Centre spokesman Steve Rendle said the Kota Loceng arrived at 11pm but the yachtsman was reluctant to get close to the larger ship in the middle of the night in turbulent seas.

The Tauranga coastguard was called and arrived to help the stricken vessel at 4am.

Phillips said they pulled up alongside the yacht, and in 3m swells and strong winds, a crew member hauled the weary sailor to safety.

He said it took a fair of time to work out how to best get the man off his vessel.

"Given those conditions we pulled alongside his yacht.

"One of our crew leaned over and held his body and he jumped across," said Phillips.

He said the man was exhausted from the ordeal but very relieved to be rescued.

"He was as pleased as punch to hop on board our vessel," said Phillips.

"He had been battling the conditions for a number of hours. When it came time for us to work out how to get him off he was more concerned about himself than what would happen to his boat."

The man was headed back to Dunedin soon after returning to port.