As the body of Rimutaka prison inmate Aupai Bruce Tohu was brought to shore yesterday, his grieving uncle could think only of the waste of life.

"Kei te aha koe," Ian Moana addressed the body of his nephew, in Maori.

"What are you doing? Why are you lying there like that? Your death is a waste."

The family of Tohu, aged 25, from Lower Hutt and of Ngati Porou descent, raised questions over who was responsible for the death of the prison inmate, drowned after the waka he was on capsized in choppy weather.

Mr Tohu was one of 14 inmates taking part in a Maori cultural training course, including lessons in waka and Maori weaponry (taiaha), on Mokoia Island run by former Maori rugby league international Mita Mohi.

The Minister of Corrections, Matt Robson, said he would investigate whether any tightening was needed to safety guidelines for prisoners taking part in activities outside prisons.

But he defended the wananga course, saying it was part of a growing world trend to let inmates take part in challenging activities.

In November 1998, Rangipo prisoner Matthew Neave, 30, drowned after parachuting into Lake Taupo.

The Department of Corrections said inmates on the course were minimum security prisoners in the last 12 months of their sentence and eligible for parole.

A spokeswoman said the aim was to reduce reoffending by encouraging inmates to explore their culture.

Mita Mohi, made an MBE for his work with inmates and youngsters, said it was the first accident in the 20 years of the course.

"We have had 10,000 people through the course," he said. "It's a tragic thing for us to have one of our whanau pass away."

Police inquiries into the accident will continue today.

Senior Sergeant Dave Donaldson, of Rotorua, said that after the capsize, a boat at the scene attached a rope to the 10m fibreglass waka.

"It towed the waka to shore and left the occupants to swim ashore," he said.

The boat driver abandoned the waka and returned to help when he realised some of the men in the water were struggling to reach the shore.

Police divers found Mr Tohu's body yesterday morning soon after the search restarted.

The body was returned to Mokoia, where survivors offered up karakia (prayers). Mr Tohu was to lie on Awahou Marae, Mr Mohi's ancestral marae, in Rotorua last night, before returning to relatives today.