The wife of a well-known Tauranga sailor who died in wild seas off the Bay of Islands remains in Whangārei Hospital after a dramatic maritime rescue mission but her life is no longer in danger.

Stuart Pedersen died after the yacht he and three others were sailing started taking on water and sank about 20km north of Cape Brett at the height of Monday's storm.

His wife, Pamela Pedersen, was initially flown to hospital in a critical condition but was yesterday transferred to a regular ward where she is now stable, a health board spokeswoman said.

Her brother-in-law Steve and another member of the Tauranga Yacht and Power Boat Club, Bruce Goodwin, have been discharged from hospital.

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The drama began about 1pm on Monday when the New Zealand Maritime Rescue Coo-rdination Centre received a distress call from the 14-metre yacht Essence with four people on board.

The sailors said they were abandoning their sinking vessel and that they had lost their liferaft in swells of 5-6m and wind gusts of up to 50 knots. They had been returning from Fiji.

It is believed Goodwin activated a personal locator beacon when the liferaft blew away as they tried to deploy it.

The liferaft bobs in heavy seas as a rescue helicopter approaches to winch the surviving sailors to safety. Photo / Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust
The liferaft bobs in heavy seas as a rescue helicopter approaches to winch the surviving sailors to safety. Photo / Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust

An Air Force P3 Orion was dispatched from Whenuapai, located the four people in the water at 2.47pm, and dropped a liferaft.

The Orion then remained in the area until a Westpac Rescue Helicopter arrived from Auckland. At that point two people had managed to get into the liferaft but two were still in the water.

The three survivors and one deceased were winched aboard the helicopter and flown to Whangārei.

A Bay of Islands Coastguard vessel was dispatched from its base at Dove's Bay and made it about halfway in waves described by the chopper crew as some of the biggest they'd seen in 15 years.

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Among those shocked by Pedersen's death was outgoing Tauranga mayor Greg Brownless, who had been invited to join his close friend on a sailing trip around the Pacific Islands.

Brownless had to decline due to other commitments, including last weekend's local body elections.

''To think of his sailing around the world and to be taken just off the coast of New Zealand, nearly at home, it's horrendous. You can't believe it. It's like a very, very bad dream.''

''He's a very compassionate person. I've always admired him,'' Brownless said.

Maritime NZ spokeswoman Stephanie Morison said it was too early to say what had caused the vessel to sink.

The investigation, which would also involve police and the Rescue Co-ordination Centre NZ, was still in an information gathering phase, though preliminary interviews had been conducted with some of the survivors.

A rescue helicopter had been dispatched from Auckland instead of Whangārei because no Northland helicopter was available, Morison said. That was thought to be due to crewing issues.

Pedersen was the chairman of a youth academy which gave underprivileged children a chance to learn to sail, a Rotarian, and the Tauranga candidate for the Act Party.

Act leader David Seymour said party members were in a state of shock. He described Pedersen as an ''incredibly kind and hospitable man'' with ''the most giving heart''.

He was also known in Northland sailing circles as a keen competitor in the Auckland-Russell Coastal Classic.

Pedersen's adult sons, Theo and Sven, are flying back to New Zealand from overseas.