Thirty-three lives could have been saved if a Kiribati ferry had carried an emergency beacon and distress flares, according to a New Zealand report into the disaster, in which 35 people died last year.

The ferry was also ill-designed, did not have enough life jackets and rescuers were ill-prepared to rescue the survivors, the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) said today, as it released its report into the incident, following a request from the Kiribati government to investigate.

About 52 people, including crew, were on the Uean Te Raoi II going to the island of Maiana when the boat overturned on July 13, in heavy seas.

However, it wasn't reported to authorities until about four hours later when one of the people managed to swim ashore and it took another 4-1/2 hours for a rescue vessel to be launched.

The search and rescue team looked for survivors in the wrong area for about 2-1/2 days because they had the wrong calculated drift pattern.

Witnesses said two people died immediately after the accident.

In its report, TAIC said had the vessel carried a 406 MHz emergency locator beacon, or EPIRB, and day and night flares ready for immediate use, it was "highly likely" that only two, instead of 35, would have died.

"Had an EPIRB been on-board and activated, the exact location and plight of the Uean Te Raoi II would have been known almost immediately. In this event it is highly likely that all of those on-board would have been rescued that night, meaning the number of fatalities would have kept at two."

It found there were also not enough life jackets on board for every person, which could have also reduced the number of deaths.

TAIC said The Uean Te Raoi II did not have a certificate of seaworthiness, nor a licence to trade so it should not have been going on the trip it was on when it overturned.

Its size was also significantly different from the design that it was based on and the size of all the components had not been increased proportionately, affecting the stability making the vessel only suitable for sheltered waters.

As to the rescue, TAIC said the marine division did not have an effective search and rescue plan that could be implemented in short notice, delaying a search for survivors.

The police maritime unit received the first notification at 4.55pm and the rescue vessel departed for the search at 9.30pm.

TAIC reported the head of the maritime unit saying that under normal circumstances the time required to ready the vessel for operation was 2-1/2 hours in an emergency.

Among the 10 safety recommendations in the report, TAIC said the Kiribati marine division should develop and distribute a laminated simple guidance note for vessel owners on what equipment should be carried, and recommend having sufficient children's lifejackets when kids are on board.

TAIC said the marine division should be given additional resources to enable better monitoring of passenger, non-passenger and fishing vessels to ensure they hold seaworthiness and certificates and licences of trade.

It also recommended the development of an effective search and rescue plan that could be launched in short notice.

- NZPA