An ailing passenger on a visiting cruise ship sparked a challenging rescue in turbulent stormy seas off Auckland last night.

Northern Coastguard spokesman Johnny Clough said the Australia-bound Norwegian Jewel was heading north near Kawau Island at 8.15pm when it reported a passenger needed to be urgently taken to hospital.

The 76-year-old woman was believed to have suffered a heart attack.

The captain headed back to Auckland where it was met in the Waitemata Harbour by the Coastguard's rescue craft with a paramedic on board.

In 2m swells, gale force winds and deepening darkness a paramedic climbed aboard the 93,000 tonne ship through a portal just 2m above the waterline.

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The conditions were described as "turbulent" making for a challenging near four-hour rescue operation.

Clough said the winds were too strong to consider using a helicopter to fly the sick woman to hospital.

The Norwegian Jewel returned to Auckland after a passenger became ill. Image / www.marinetraffic.com
The Norwegian Jewel returned to Auckland after a passenger became ill. Image / www.marinetraffic.com

Clough said the sick passenger was stabilised before being lowered in a lifeboat down the side of the ship into the waiting rescue catamaran.

INCIDENT UPDATE: The Norwegian Jewel is a 294m long cruise ship currently preparing to depart Auckland. This enormous...

Posted by Coastguard Northern Region on Thursday, 18 January 2018

The rescue craft raced to the Marine Rescue Centre and was met by a waiting ambulance. The patient was taken to Auckland Hospital.

After the medical emergency the Norwegian Jewel and its 2300 passengers resumed its delayed voyage north.