Tevita Kava hasn't been seen since he fell from a cruise boat while celebrating his friend's 30th birthday last Saturday night. As family and friends hold vigil on the rocky shores of the upper Waitemata Harbour waiting for their boy to come home, Cherie Howie traces Tevita's final hours.

He was so proud of his new shoes.

They were brown and shiny and cost $250 and here they were, taking him on his first boat trip.

Actually, Tevita Kava - known as Dave or David to many of his friends and family - was happy with his whole outfit as he stepped on to a Red Boats charter vessel with 50 others on Saturday night, his long-time workmate and friend Esser Tuvae says.

Advertisement

The party had a Mafia theme and Kava was looking sharp in a button-up shirt and long black waistcoat.

Tuvae's brother, Carl, was celebrating his 30th birthday by taking an evening cruise on Auckland's Waitemata Harbour.

The stylish theme pleased Kava, Tuvae says.

"He said 'the good thing about this theme is we can go straight to church from the party'."

His friends weren't surprised by Kava's comment. Faith was the foundation he built his life on.

The Mangere man's family chose not to speak to the Herald, but former Elim Bible College classmate Jess Easthope says Kava sometimes attended up to three church services each Sunday.

Saturdays weren't much quieter, with the other half of his weekend spent volunteering at faith-based Manurewa drop-in centre, House of Hope.

"He would help people with their problems, have a coffee with them. He was a good listener.

Advertisement

"He was a man of few words, but his actions were loud."

Even the much-loved new shoes would be shed if Kava thought someone needed them more than he did, Easthope says.

Last Saturday afternoon though, the shoes were on.

Tuvae and his older brother arrived to pick Kava up from his Mangere home just after 3pm.

His mum had braided his hair, as she always did, his costume was ready and, of course, there was a big smile on his face.

"He was really, really excited", Tuvae says. "He told us it was his first time on a boat."

Tevita Kava was devoted to his faith, his friends and his family. Photo / Supplied
Tevita Kava was devoted to his faith, his friends and his family. Photo / Supplied

The trio made their way into the city, where the Tuvae brothers had booked rooms in a Fort St hotel.

After the boat trip, they would go back there, Tuvae says.

"We'd booked a hotel so no one would drink and drive."

They wanted everyone to get home safe.

A short video Tuvae took at the hotel shows Kava, laughing with his friends.

"It's the last one I have of him."

He wishes he had taken more. They've been mates a long time and the bond was strong.

"He was my partner in everything. We used to drive all the way from [Mangere] to the night markets out here, in Glenfield."

Kava was from Tonga, but also has Samoan family, and he was especially keen on food from the islands, Tuvae says.

"He loved his food, but I don't know where it all went. I think his [calories] came to me."

Friends of Tevita Kava, pictured at Island Bay wharf. From left, Matthew Papalii, Dana Tito, Paul Tuvae, Esser Tuvae and Carl Tuvae. Photo / Cherie Howie
Friends of Tevita Kava, pictured at Island Bay wharf. From left, Matthew Papalii, Dana Tito, Paul Tuvae, Esser Tuvae and Carl Tuvae. Photo / Cherie Howie

Next year, the pair would've celebrated a decade of friendship.

It was a friendship forged in one of the coldest places in the city, the freezer area of the Tip Top ice-cream factory where they both worked, Tuvae says.

But Kava had a big, warm heart.

By early evening the revellers were getting ready to leave for Pier 20 on Auckland's waterfront, where their charter boat was waiting.

It had been a cool, wet day, but the weather had cleared by the afternoon, Metservice meteorologist Tom Adams says.

The national weather service don't take sea surface temperature readings in the harbour, but the high on the Harbour Bridge peaked at 14.2C by 2pm and began dropping around six.

By midnight it was 11.5C, but there was a stiff breeze, with winds of 15km/h, gusting to 25km/h in the evening.

Some time after 7pm the birthday party group gathered outside their hotel to catch taxis to the waterfront, with Kava and the birthday boy in the last one.

When they arrived, Kava insisted on paying the whole fare himself, Tuvae says.

"He said [to Carl] 'it's your birthday, so don't worry about it'. That's him. He was like that at work too, he'd come in with his lunch and share it around."

A favourite was Kava's homemade Tongan dish. Tuvae can't remember the name, but says it had lamb and taro leaves and all kind of tasty goodness.

Easthope and other classmates at Bible College also fared well from their generous friend.

Mii Apai smiles as she remembers one of her classmate's catchphrases.

"'Are you hungry?', he always used to say that."

If they were, it wasn't for long, Easthope says.

"He was always feeding us. Banana cakes, ice-cream, milkshakes, pizzas, pies. He'd buy us KFC. He'd bring it in and then leave it there and not say he'd done it."

Now Easthope, Apai and their fellow Bible College classmate, Clem Matangi, are doing something for their friend.

They've gathered on the deserted waterfront at Island Bay, on the eastern side of the upper harbour area, and they're searching around rocks and under overhanging trees.

If one of them was missing, they know Kava would do the same, Easthope says.

"He'd be feeding everyone from his big, black Chevy truck."

Clem Matangi, left, Jess Easthope and Mii Apai studied with Kava at Elim Bible College and have been helping the search for his body this week. Photo / Michael Craig
Clem Matangi, left, Jess Easthope and Mii Apai studied with Kava at Elim Bible College and have been helping the search for his body this week. Photo / Michael Craig

There's a heaving great city just over the harbour, but you wouldn't know it here.

The peace is only broken by the odd squawk from a seagull, its fish-and-chip stuffed body wavering above as the sharp breeze whips up early afternoon.

The trio say finding their friend would be hard, but it would also be a relief.

They've watched as family - who are now searching the shoreline around Birkenhead - gather at the wharf that juts out beyond Island Bay Rd.

Most heartbreaking were the desperate cries of Kava's5-year-old brother, Easthope says.

"He was out there [on the wharf] calling 'David, come on, let's go home. It's cold out there'."

It wasn't meant to be like this, Tuvae says.

Almost a week ago, they were leaving the kaleidoscope colours of cityscape twinkling behind.

More than 150km north, the Lions were kicking off their much-anticipated New Zealand tour against the Barbarians in Whangarei.

But in Auckland, the birthday party group were motoring under the Harbour Bridge, past the Chelsea Sugar Factory and soon making their way around the inky black tree line of Kauri Point Domain.

The celebrations started slowly, shyly, Tuvae says.

"Everyone was getting to know each other."

Despite the quiet beginnings, Kava and the rest of group missed the moment the boat went under the Harbour Bridge.

No matter. It would be there on the return, and they would have a feed while enjoying the view.

Kava was on the top deck, but sticking to the middle - he was afraid of heights and, as he told a few people, he couldn't swim.

"I think he was nervous, because he made a couple of jokes about it."

The music was pumping but there was bad static on the top deck. Kava didn't seem too worried though.

He was growing in confidence, Tuvae says.

"He was doing his Snapchat. He'd just got into it. He did a couple of 360 degree spins and selfies."

Tevita Kava fell from a charter Red Boats vessel while on a birthday party cruise in Waitemata Harbour on Saturday night. Photo / Nick Reed
Tevita Kava fell from a charter Red Boats vessel while on a birthday party cruise in Waitemata Harbour on Saturday night. Photo / Nick Reed

On board there was a cash bar, but the brothers had brought chicken nibbles, meat patties and sausages to cook on a barbecue at the stern, next to the ramp they had crossed to board.

Two men were manning the barbecue when Kava decided to join them, around 9.20pm.

The boat was around the area off Island Bay, although no one is quite sure where, Tuvae says.

Neither of those on the barbecue saw what happened next, but Tino Mona - sitting in an area above them - did. She hasn't slept well since.

Mona didn't know Kava well, but they had chatted earlier in the evening, she says.

"The whole night he just mentioned that he couldn't swim, [he said that] quite a few times.

"He said 'oh man, I hope I don't fall off the boat. I can't swim'."

Playing on his party's Mafia theme, Carl Tuvae had bought cigars and given them to friends.

After he went down to the barbecue, Kava turned to Mona and asked if she had a lighter.

And then he was gone.

"He kind of just leant back a little and he just went down. It happened real quick. You kind of just blinked and he was gone."

Since the accident, Mona has been replaying, in her mind, the look on Kava's face.

"That look won't go away ... he just had this look in his eyes, this look of shock, and maybe two seconds after he fell I couldn't see him at all."

Kava had disappeared into the darkness.

Mona's screams

first alerted the others on the boat that something was terribly wrong.

"I just kept screaming 'stop the boat, stop the boat'."

The skipper turned back, but it took too long, Mona says.

Tuvae reckons they were about 50 metres away by the time the boat turned.

"One of my sisters said 'your friend went overboard'. Once she said it was Dave I ran to the back of the boat."

A friend had to physically stop him from jumping in.

"I know I'm not a good swimmer ... [I wanted to jump in] because I'm the one that brought him."

As emergency services scrambled, those on the boat began searching, but that brought its own drama.

One of Tuvae's cousins fell overboard from the same place as Kava; his life was saved by another cousin jumping from the top deck.

"He said he just put his hand on the ramp [and fell in]," Tuvae says.

Red Boats is owned by Andrew Somers, who says he can't comment on what happened until an investigation by Maritime New Zealand is completed.

"All we can say at this point is our hearts go out to Tevita's family."

But earlier this week, Somers told the Herald the ramp wasn't broken and staff had since tested it.

Kava was in an area at the back of the vessel which was off-limits to patrons, with only one person meant to be in the area for the barbecue.

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

There has never been an issue with the ramp in the 20 years the company has owned the boat, Somers says.

The boat was carrying half its capacity and life jackets were on board, but people were only told to wear them in an emergency.

He's confident his staff followed the correct man-overboard procedure - a drill was done the same afternoon as the tragedy, he says.

"We are devastated."

Twenty-nine years is more than some get, but Kava has likely still been cruelly short-changed on life.

There was so much more to come, and for those who loved him, there's a heartbreaking sense of what might have been.

Tevita Kava, left, with friends Mii Apai and Clem Matangi, donating their time in Clendon as part of their involvement in church. Photo / Supplied
Tevita Kava, left, with friends Mii Apai and Clem Matangi, donating their time in Clendon as part of their involvement in church. Photo / Supplied

But there is also a gratitude for who he was.

"He was the most humble, beautiful person of all heart that I've ever met," Easthope says as she waits for the sea to return her friend.

"I don't think I'll ever meet another David."