Pirates have shot a Kiwi man dead and attacked his wife with a machete after boarding the family's vessel in Panama.

The dead man is Alan Culverwell, a former paua diver from Picton who had worked frequently in the Chatham Islands.

The attack took place overnight NZ time in the Guna Yala region along the country's northern coastline.

Alan Culverwell and his wife Derryn attacked by pirates in Panama. Photos / FaceBook
Alan Culverwell and his wife Derryn attacked by pirates in Panama. Photos / FaceBook

The family are understood to sold their Marlborough Sounds home and bought a 65-foot launch in the US before embarking on an 18-24 month sailing adventure home to New Zealand.

Advertisement

The case has similarities to that of Kiwi sailing legend Sir Peter Blake, who was shot by pirates on a vessel near the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil in 2001.

The Culverwell family awoke to hear a noise on the vessel's roof and when Culverwell went out to investigate he was killed.

It is understood Culverwell was shot and his wife Derryn was then attacked with a machete. One of their children also suffered minor injuries. Derryn Culverwell later called for help to New Zealand.

The three surviving family members are now receiving treatment in hospital in Panama City, and relatives from New Zealand are flying to Panama to support them.

Culverwell's sister Derryn Hughes said in a statement nothing could have prepared the family for the attack that "tragically took Alan's life".

"We want to assure you all that Derryn and the children are safe, while understandably traumatised," she said.

"We are so grateful that they survived this attack and we will work as a family to support them through the coming days, weeks, months and years."

Alan was a dedicated, loving husband, father, son, brother, uncle and friend to all, she said.

"His family were his everything."

"I speak for the whole family when I say that we are devastated with what has happened."

"We would appreciate privacy at this time as we grieve as a family. We are all heartbroken."

Hughes thanked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, NZ police and Interpol for their support.

MFAT said it was "responding to an incident involving a New Zealand family in Panama".

"Due to privacy considerations no further information will be provided," the department said.

Alan Culverwell and his wife Derryn attacked by pirates in Panama. Photos / via Facebook
Alan Culverwell and his wife Derryn attacked by pirates in Panama. Photos / via Facebook
Alan Culverwell. Photo / via Facebook
Alan Culverwell. Photo / via Facebook

A source in Panama also told the Herald Culverwell was killed in an attack by pirates, but she didn't have any further information.

A report by the Spanish-language media outlet Mi Diario said the incident took place on May 2 in the Guna Yala region near the island of Dad Naggwe Dubbir.

The outlet said the attackers wore hoods and stole a boat engine.

Paua Industry Council chief executive Jeremy Cooper told the Herald the paua community were rallying behind the family and trying to raise money to support them.

"A number of people have already rung me today to say 'how can we contribute'," Cooper said.

A family member and two close friends were now "scrambling to get visas and airfares" from New Zealand to Panama.

There would also be costs associated with bringing Culverwell's family home and working out what to do with their boat, Cooper said.

He said Culverwell was known as a "legend" in the Chatham Islands paua industry for being an early campaigner for catches to be managed sustainably.

"He certainly put his shoulder to the wheel ... [and did] the hard graft when other people were still talking about it," Cooper said.

Cooper had known Culverwell since the early 1990s. He had also known Culverwell's school teacher wife Derryn for decades since she taught his children when they were young.

A "brilliant teacher", Derryn had been home schooling the couple's children on their boat as they made their two-year journey home.

Having searched the world for a nice boat for years, the Culverwells used the money from the sale of their property to buy a
Having searched the world for a nice boat for years, the Culverwells used the money from the sale of their property to buy a "big 65-footer" in Florida in the US. Photo / Supplied

That journey began when the family recently sold the beautiful and isolated home they owned in waters near Picton, which could only be accessed by boat.

Having searched the world for a nice boat for years, they used the money from the sale of their property to buy a "big 65-footer" in Florida in the US, Cooper said.

"It was a beautiful big boat that had been owned by someone with way too much money and [Culverwell] just timed it perfectly, he bought it in Florida for way less than had been spent on it," he said.

The family then flew to Florida and "decked out the boat and started driving it home".

Facebook posts showed the couple posting a glowing review in March on the page of a Florida marine service company that installed solar panels and other gear on their boat.

They also stopped off at the Panamanian island of Bocas del Toro where they played volleyball and became good friends with the owners of the Drunken Monkey Panama bar, which has room for boats to pull up alongside it.