A dramatic night-time rescue of five people whose boat capsized in an isolated Far North harbour is a reminder to wear lifejackets even when it isn't legally required, a water safety advocate says.
The rescue turned into an international effort with surf lifesavers from England, Kapiti and Ruakaka working alongside local residents, police Search and Rescue, Ahipara Fire Brigade and the Auckland-based Westpac Rescue Helicopter.
The drama began some time after 8pm on January 1 when a 7m aluminium boat carrying five family members, aged from their early 20s to mid-60s, capsized just inside the mouth of Whangape Harbour.
The isolated harbour, with a narrow entrance known for its powerful currents, is on the west coast midway between Hokianga and Ahipara.
Ahipara fire chief Dave Ross, who also heads Far North Surf Rescue, said one of the people tipped from the boat managed to swim to the harbour's southern shore, then run to the settlement of Pawarenga to raise the alarm. The area has no cellphone coverage.
The fire brigade and surf rescue responded with two IRBs (inflatable rescue boats) towed by utes and a fire engine.
They arrived at Whangape just before 10pm. Locals, who had been oblivious to the drama, set out straight away in their own IRB. The official rescue party had to wait for police Search and Rescue to arrive, then set out with two locals on each boat to help find the way. They also had strobes to light up the water at intervals without affecting their night vision.
A rescue helicopter from Auckland located the upturned boat and a number of lifejackets floating nearby.
The local IRB was first to reach the boaties, some of whom had been in the water for up to 90 minutes and had mild hypothermia. Others had badly cut feet after making it to shore.
Even the trip back to Whangape had its challenges with boats battling the rip of the outgoing tide and injuries needing to be treated. Fortunately one of the Ahipara firefighters is also a St John medic, Ross said.
The rescue chopper landed at Whangape where the on-board paramedic checked the patients. They did not need to be transported to hospital.
Ross said none of the five on the capsized boat were wearing lifejackets but for vessels over 6m it was compulsory only to have lifejackets on board, not to wear them at all times.
''They live out there and I guess they get a bit blase about going out on the water.''
The rescuers were ''pretty exhausted'' by the time they got home about 1am, he said.
As well as local volunteers they included a young surf lifesaver from Ruakākā, a firefighter/surf lifesaver from Paekakariki, and a surf lifesaver from Hayle in Cornwall, England, all of whom happened to be staying in Ahipara.
Water Safety New Zealand chief executive Jonty Mills said the people in the Whangape capsize were ''incredibly lucky''.
''It could so easily have ended differently and been a tragic start to the New Year.''
While the law specified lifejackets only had to be worn at all times on boats under 6m, Water Safety NZ was a strong advocate for always wearing them. If a boat flipped it was very difficult to reach a lifejacket tucked away somewhere on board.
Over the past five years an average of 20 recreational boaties had died each year in New Zealand, about two-thirds of whom might have survived had they been wearing lifejackets.
''That's 14 families going through an entirely preventable tragedy,'' Mills said.
Even in vessels over 6m the law stated that boaties had to wear lifejackets at times of heightened risk. However, that was open to the skipper's interpretation and differing rules around the country.