Questions have been raised by rescuers as to why an Auckland couple left safe anchorage and sailed towards Whangarei only to have their yacht smashed on to rocks.

The couple aged, 70 and 77, aboard 12m vessel Kirribilli were winched off rocks near Taiharuru about 5.30am yesterday after they first raised the alarm 35 hours earlier. The yacht had struck a small rocky island called Ipurau.

The couple were treated at Whangarei Hospital with the male being admitted to a ward and the female released. They declined requests by the Northern Advocate for an interview.

The cost of the rescue, which involved multiple helicopter flights to sea, will run into the tens of thousands and those spearheading the prolonged mission say they have questions for the couple when they have recovered from the traumatic experience.


Senior Sergeant Cliff Metcalfe, head of Northland police Search and Rescue squad, said the couple had declined to be lifted off the vessel. And after being guided into calm waters at the Poor Knights Islands ignored they instructions to remain and tried to sail back to Whangarei Harbour, where they struck rocks.

The Northland rescue helicopter was called three times to the stricken boaties. Photo / Peter de Graaf
The Northland rescue helicopter was called three times to the stricken boaties. Photo / Peter de Graaf

"People put their lives at risk for these people who had put out a distress signal. I question what they were doing out there in the first place.

"If you look at the weather and the sea state and swells that were predicted over the weekend there was a high risk of something going wrong," Mr Metcalfe said.

"They were in real risk of dying out there at one point. If that boat had rolled we wouldn't have been able to help them. It really tested our rescue resources."

They were advised repeatedly to stay where they were at a safe anchorage and to ride it out until the sea had eased.

There had been communication issues and trouble with the activation of the rescue location device which did not give accurate readings due to interference.

The first attempt to rescue the married couple was made about 1.30am on Sunday, when the Northland Rescue Helicopter was dispatched, but due to poor light and weather conditions, it was deemed unsafe to carry out a rescue.

The second helicopter flight was about 12 hours later, when a swimmer paramedic was lowered into the water and climbed on board the yacht in four metre swells.


The medic was then winched back on board the helicopter as it was deemed safer for the duo to remain on the yacht and seek shelter at the Poor Knights Islands.

Northland Rescue Helicopter crew lift the skipper safely aboard. Photo / Supplied
Northland Rescue Helicopter crew lift the skipper safely aboard. Photo / Supplied

The final flight saw them tasked to pluck the two from rocks at Taiharuru.

"There were real challenges in this rescue and the weather was just one factor."

Mr Metcalfe said if a skipper and the crew refused to leave their vessel rescuers could not force them to leave.

Initially Coastguard radio was advised of a distress call from two people on a vessel off Northland, about 10-15 nautical miles east of the Whangarei Harbour entrance.

They were unable to reach the safety of the harbour with winds gusting up to 50 knots and waves of 6 metres crashing into the yacht.

Tutukaka Coastguard was able to help guide the yacht in the right direction before conditions became too rough. Another Coastguard vessel from Marsden Cove was also deployed but was unable to reach the yacht safely due to the high seas.

It's thought the boat's steering failed and there were also problems with the compass and electronic navigation equipment.

Coastguard Operations Manager Ray Burge said situations like this, the safety of the rescuers involved was carefully assessed.

"We have to make sure that everyone – the two people on the yacht and our volunteers, are going to get home safely and the conditions were so severe, that this was an unlikely outcome."

Along with police and coastguard, Marine Operations Centre and the Rescue Coordination Centre in Wellington were involved with the call out.