The coastguard and harbourmaster were searching Lake Taupo last night in rough, wild conditions while the three men they were looking for were shopping at Pak'n Save.
The men - two from Te Kuiti and one from Hamilton - had earlier called 111 from their tiny aluminium dinghy, requesting help after they were caught out in rough conditions in the middle of Lake Taupo.
They had only one lifejacket between them; phones which were running flat after the batteries were used up for playing music; and no other means of communication.
The trio, indentified only as James, Jaden and Gavin, had left Pukawa at the southern end of Lake Taupo at about 5pm yesterday intending to motor the 40km to Taupo to visit the town's bars.
But while conditions were calm at Pukawa they were considerably rougher in the middle of the lake.
When the outboard motor failed, the worried men called 111 at about 6.15pm to ask for help.
Coastguard Taupo sent its vessel out to search, but the dark green dinghy was impossible to spot among the metre-high waves.
Coastguard Turangi and the Lake Taupo Harbourmaster also joined the search and the Greenlea Rescue Helicopter was briefly dispatched before returning to base in the worsening conditions.
Senior Constable Barry Shepherd from Taupo Police said, given the size and colour of the boat and limited information, finding the trio was like searching for a needle in a haystack.
"At one point they told us they were taking on water... there were three adult men in there and next to no freeboard.
"They were ridiculously lucky to make it to Taupo given the conditions."
Shepherd said the men arrived in Taupo at 8pm but rather than alerting anyone that they were safe, they went into town to buy themselves some food.
Meanwhile, at search headquarters, efforts to find them were being stepped up.
The three vessels were still out on the lake searching and police were about to send the rescue helicopter back out.
They were also considering a shoreline search in case the men had washed up there.
It wasn't until a local at Pukawa alerted police at about 11pm that the men had returned to their accommodation that the search was finally called off.
"While they were cruising around Pak'n Save having the time of their lives, we were out searching for them," Shepherd said.
"We were all thinking we were looking for three bodies in the lake."
He said the men were apologetic this morning, but not advising anybody they were safe was "not good enough".
"It's really rubbing it in to all those good people who come out in the dark at night time to search for them, and they're safe and well.
"You can accept that people make mistakes and go out in conditions that are not entirely favourable but when people make a call for help and then self-rescue, then the decent thing is to tell us."
James, one of the men on board, said the engine failed when the men were in the middle of the lake and he had been very worried that the boat would tip over and they would drown.
However, they managed to restart the motor and battled on through the rough conditions. Their phones went flat and they couldn't call for help.
"We were using the phone for some sounds so that was pretty stupid, and my phone went completely dead."
At one point, they could see a Coastguard vessel but it could not see them.
All three were wet through and freezing cold by the time they reached Taupo.
He said none of them had anticipated conditions would be as bad as they were, and when they did, it was too late to turn around.
He said he did not think he would be venturing out onto Lake Taupo again soon.
"Not on a little boat like that."