A "gentle soul" who couldn't swim was this morning still missing after he fell into icy waters from a packed party boat on Saturday night when a safety barrier gave way.

His devastated friends say another passenger also fell into the water, but was rescued, after leaning on the same barrier later in the night during a frantic search.

Tevita Kava was celebrating his friend's 30th birthday aboard a Red Boats charter vessel with 50 other people.

Mangere man Tevita Kava went missing on Saturday night after he fell overboard a party boat. Photo / Supplied
Mangere man Tevita Kava went missing on Saturday night after he fell overboard a party boat. Photo / Supplied

A full-scale search operation has been under way since police were called at 9.20pm on Saturday.

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Emergency services were told the 29-year-old from Mangere had gone overboard between Kauri Point and Birkenhead.

Paul Tuvae, who was at the party, said Kava went to the back of the boat to check on men cooking on a barbecue. As they were talking, he leaned against a barrier. It released and Kava fell backwards into the freezing, pitch-black water, Tuvae said.

The barrier, when unlocked, acts as a ramp to get on and off the boat.

"It was a bit rough and the boat was moving pretty fast," Tuvae told the Herald.

"The fact that he can't swim, he wouldn't have been able to float long enough."

Family members wait on the shore at Island Bay Reserve as the police launch searches the waters in the Waitemata Harbour. Photo / Dean Purcell
Family members wait on the shore at Island Bay Reserve as the police launch searches the waters in the Waitemata Harbour. Photo / Dean Purcell

Friends who witnessed him fall weren't confident swimmers either, and it took time for the skipper to be alerted and turn the boat around, Tuvae said.

Red Boats owner Andrew Somers said the ramp wasn't broken and staff had since tested it.

Kava was in an area at the rear of the vessel which was off limits to patrons, Somers said.

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Only one person was meant to be in that area for the barbecue.

"The ramp is locked and tied in place. I'm unsure as to how it was unlocked and untied."

Red Boats had cancelled all charters for the company's fleet until it was established what happened.

Somers said the company had owned the boat for 20 years and never had an issue with the ramp.

He was confident his staff followed the correct man-overboard procedure. They did regular drills and had just done one that afternoon.

Red Boats provided life jackets but people were only told to wear them in an emergency situation. The capacity of the boat was 99 and 51 people were on it at the time.

"We are devastated," Somers told the Herald.

Family members wait on the jetty at Island Bay Reserve as the police launch searches the waters. Photo / Dean Purcell
Family members wait on the jetty at Island Bay Reserve as the police launch searches the waters. Photo / Dean Purcell

"We're working with the authorities to establish what has happened. The ramp's bolt is still in working order. I'm unsure why it was let down like that."

Kava, originally from Tonga, had joked earlier in the night that he better not fall in because he didn't know how to swim, Tuvae recalled.

"We're all devastated. He's a gentle soul.

"It was his first time on a charter boat so he was pretty excited."

The boat scoured the water for hours with the entire party looking for their lost friend. Police and Coastguard assisted the search and rescue operation with boats and a helicopter.

Carl Tuvae, who had organised the party for his birthday, said another friend also fell into the water when the same barrier gave way. The man was leaning overboard looking for Kava. Luckily, a fellow passenger jumped in to save him.

There must have been something wrong with the barrier, Tuvae said.

Kava's desperate family and friends had come out each day since the party and walked the coastline searching for any trace of him.

His cousin, Ellie Sitaleki-Lovo, said the family was suffering. Kava's father couldn't bring himself to speak, he just stared out to sea.

"It's been really hard. It's a tragic loss. We're still hoping to find him.

Photo / Dean Purcell
Photo / Dean Purcell

"He always put other people first. He was always giving and he'd never ask for anything."
Sitaleki-Lovo said their mother passed away a few years ago.

"Then it was just me and him. Now it's just me."

Jess Easthope called Kava her best friend. She said he was a boxer and had just graduated with his certificate in Christian ministry.

They would meet every Thursday and were trying to set up a service to feed the homeless.
He was beautiful, loving and generous, she said.

"He was my brother from another mother.

"I hope they find him. But I've got a funny feeling he got to heaven and said, 'Nope I'm staying'."

Police are leading the search with the help of Maritime NZ and the Navy, but Maritime New Zealand expected the investigation to be handed over to it eventually.

Police would not comment on suggestions a rail had given way, or that a second person had to be rescued after falling into the water, saying the focus was now on finding the missing man.

WorkSafe NZ has been notified.

A Maritime NZ spokeswoman said commercial charter boats had to have enough life jackets for everyone on board.

They had to be worn at a time of heightened risk, crossing a bar, bad weather or when the skipper ordered them to put it on.

Consumption of alcohol should also be avoided, according to the rules.