Four men left clinging to their upturned boat in cold and rough waters off the Northland coast were only minutes away from tragedy, experienced rescuers say.

The men were on a fishing trip near Tauranga Bay when a freak wave flipped their 5.5-metre vessel and threw them into the water on Sunday about 4pm. A volunteer senior firefighter and experienced surf lifeguard went to their aid and plucked the hypothermic men from the sea.

The fishermen were not wearing lifejackets at the time the vessel capsized but instead had them aboard the boat along with the communication equipment. It is not mandatory to wear lifejackets, but Maritime NZ, who want wearing lifejackets to be compulsory for children aged under 15, believe anyone heading out on to the water should wear one.

The misadventure comes only a month after water-safety officials warned Northlanders to take more care near and on the water as the region's drowning toll this year passed the number for the whole of 2012. Nine people have drowned in Northland waters this year.


It was fortunate Linda Clancey, a nurse, was gazing out to sea as she sipped a coffee at her Tauranga Bay bach.

"I looked and could see what I thought was a dolphin, then a whale but realised it was people and a boat," she said.

She alerted her husband, Brian, who is a senior firefighter with the Onerahi brigade, who went up the hill with binoculars to get a better look.

"I could see a person waving both hands above their head looking distressed," he said.

Another few minutes and the boat would have drifted behind rocks and would not have been visible from shore.

Together Mr Clancey and lifeguard Mark Bourneville, a former Kiwi rugby league international, dashed out through the choppy water on the outgoing tide in a ridged inflatable boat.

"They were white and you could see in their eyes they were slipping away," Mr Clancey said. "I've never seen people that are alive, looking so dead."

Mr Bourneville said all four men were in a really bad way and had been bashed around in the hour or so they had been in the water.


"They were battered and weren't coherent. One was foaming at the mouth indicating they had taken on salt water - that's a bad sign," Mr Bourneville said.