Naked, with two lifejackets pinned under each arm, Iripa Iripa crawled up Muriwai Beach.

Iripa had covered two kilometres to reach shore from the wreckage of the Francie fishing charter, and had battled 4m swells for hours.

He had broken ribs and his clothes had been ripped off, leaving only part of a T-shirt wrapped around one of his arms.

"How many are alive?" was the first thing Iripa asked his rescuers.

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Jackson Knight, 18, who helped Iripa out of the ocean, said yesterday: "He was still on all fours fully nude in the surf and the first thing he said to us was, 'How many are alive?'

"I just told him: 'Don't worry about that right now, mate. We've got to get you out of here.'"

Iripa was thrown into the ocean with 10 other men when Francie capsized in rough seas on Saturday afternoon.

Seven - most likely eight - of the other men who had been on the boat drowned. Two were winched to safety via rescue helicopter.

It has been revealed at least one of the survivors was wearing a lifejacket.

Westpac Rescue Helicopter staff said they arrived at to find two men in the water.

"One (was) hanging onto a chilly bin, the other one in a life jacket and in close proximity."

Knight had been in a 4WD on Muriwai Beach with a group of friends around 4pm when they saw dishwashing bottles, chilly bins and other household items washing up on shore.

They looked out to the surf, wondering if a boat had capsized, and saw a helicopter dipping down towards the ocean and three figures being pulled out of the water.

As the helicopter flew into shore, landing only 10m in front of their trucks, Knight said they saw a body hanging from a winch.

"We thought he was a mannequin," Knight said. "We thought it was just a training exercise."

When the helicopter landed the teenagers realised it was not a training exercise. They ran to the paramedics and helped drag the body up the beach.

The man was wearing a hi-vis singlet, but no lifejacket, Knight said.

Two survivors who had been hauled out of the ocean jumped into Knight's friends truck and they cranked up the heaters for the men, wrapped them in blankets and gave them water.

The ocean had stripped them of their pants, but they were both still wearing their jumpers, Knight said.

"We asked them what happened and how long they'd been in the water," Knight told the Herald.

The men said they had been on a fishing charter from Parakai which had capsized about 1pm.

"They said it was windy and it just tipped over and it all happened so fast," Knight said.

As the two survivors were recounting their story, in the distance Knight said he noticed what appeared to be a seal crawling out of the ocean.

"We jumped in my truck and shot up the beach and there was this really big man on his hands and knees, fully nude with two lifejackets under each arm," Knight said.

His T-shirt was still tied around one of his arms but had been pulled off his head.

"We helped him up because he was pretty unstable and he couldn't really hold himself up. He was in total shock."

The entrance of the Kaipara Harbour. Photo / Greg Bowker
The entrance of the Kaipara Harbour. Photo / Greg Bowker

Knight and his friend carried a tree log down from the beach and put it into the water to give Iripa a step up, allowing him to roll himself into the back of the truck to avoid further damaging his ribs.

They drove him back up the beach and helped him into the truck with the two other survivors so he could be assessed by the paramedic in the warmth while they waited for ambulances to arrive.

"He didn't really say much other than that the boat had capsized and his ribs were hurting," Knight said.

Soon after this, about 5pm, two other bodies were pulled out of the water and carried to shore via helicopter winch, Knight said.

Witnessing the bodies being pulled out of the surf was "pretty buzzy and intense," Knight told the Herald.

"I just kept thinking, that's someone's dad or brother," he said.

"I was thinking that it could have been my dad and that whoever's dad it was now isn't coming home for Christmas."

Knight said he didn't think his actions were heroic. He was just happy the three men survived.

"I didn't really think much of it. I wanted to make sure he didn't die in my hands. He fought so hard to get through the surf, I didn't want him to get to me and then die."

Iripa was taken to hospital but discharged yesterday.

His uncle Bob Numanga said Iripa was unable to fit the lifejackets - but clung to them to float to shore.

"On the boat when you go out the captain usually comes out and shows us where all the lifejackets are, so if anything happens you pick it up off the rail and put it on.

"Iripa wouldn't fit into one of those things though, he did manage to get one ... and he managed to grab a life jacket but it wouldn't fit on him so he hung on to it and floated to shore."

- Additional reporting Morgan Tait


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