Flying high above a turbulent Northland ocean Murray Miskelly spotted three men frantically waving on rocks and immediately knew he had found the missing fisherman.

It was the early hours of the morning when Northland Coastguard Air Patrol and Coastguard Houhora were told at first light they were to search for three missing fisherman.

The weather overnight had been windy, raining and sea conditions were rough and the trio had failed to return from a Boxing Day trip on Rangaunu Harbour last year. The men had failed to tell anyone where they intended to go, had no lifejackets and no communications.

Twenty minutes after the air patrol launched they saw the bow of the 5m aluminum boat partially submerged and after searching nearby rocks they found the men.

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"They were waving, really waving. Where they were, at high tide you can't see the rocks and they had been there overnight," said Mr Miskelly.

Coastguard Houhora were alerted and two vessels headed to the location. However, choppy seas meant it was unsafe to approach the island.

After being exposed to the elements for 16 hours the men were rescued.

One of the fishermen swam to the boat while another man with severe injuries was lifted by the Northland Electricity rescue helicopter along with his friend who waited with him on the rock.

Last night the rescue efforts of Northland Coastguard Air Patrol and Coastguard Houhora were honoured in the New Zealand Search and Rescue awards held in Wellington where the crews won a Certificate of Operational Activity.

Judges said both Coastguard Houhora and Coastguard Northland Air Patrol went above and beyond their routine work.

"The air patrol extended the search area and searched here others had not thought to. Coastguard Houhora volunteers used their skills as well as their own vessels in an excellent example of collaboration and coordination, which saved three lives at sea."

Mr Miskelly, Northland Coastguard Air Patrol president, said often they were the people who spotted missing people but were not around to make the actual rescue so this recognition was pleasing.

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Coastguard Houhora president Robin Gemmell said he was humbled to get the award but it was very exciting.