Searchers' hopes are fading for a 45-year-old woman who is thought to have fallen from her dinghy while fishing off Matauri Bay, in the Far North.

The woman rowed out around noon on Tuesday and was last seen about 4.30pm in Putataua Bay, just north of Matauri Bay.

Staff at the campground raised the alarm when she had not returned at 7pm, sparking a major search operation involving police, volunteers, two Coastguard vessels, IRBs, a police launch, a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft.

Though tragic the woman's disappearance is also a textbook case of what not to do on the water — she had been drinking and had no lifejacket or means of communication.

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It is understood the woman, who was staying at the campground, lived in the Waikato but had ties to Kaitaia.

Police return to Matauri Bay after searching 20km of shoreline and the Cavalli Islands. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Police return to Matauri Bay after searching 20km of shoreline and the Cavalli Islands. Photo / Peter de Graaf

The head of Northland Search and Rescue, Senior Sergeant Cliff Metcalfe, said Whangaroa and Bay of Islands Coastguard vessels carried out a search on Tuesday night of the area where she was last seen.

Around 9pm the woman's partner, who was heavily intoxicated, went out in another dinghy to conduct his own search.

One of the two Coastguard vessels then had to abandon the search for the missing woman until he was found and brought back to shore about an hour and a half later.

Around 10.30pm the woman's dinghy was found off the southern end of Matauri Bay, about 4km from where she was last seen. The oars were missing but the boat was upright with her clothing and fishing gear still inside.

The Northland Rescue Helicopter joined the search about 11pm using night vision equipment.

At 12.30pm her jacket was found in the water but with no sign of the woman the Coastguard crews were stood down at 2am.

Search and Rescue headquarters at Matauri Bay campground yesterday. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Search and Rescue headquarters at Matauri Bay campground yesterday. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Metcalfe said the search resumed at first light Wednesday with volunteers from Far North Search and Rescue scouring the shore and two small boats, along with a Coastguard plane and the Auckland-based police launch Deodar which happened to be in the area, searching the water.

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Nine police officers and 14 volunteers were involved in the search of the coast from Takou Bay to Opounui Pt as well as the Cavalli Islands. Conditions were benign with minimal wind or swell and good visibility.

''We've searched 20km of coastline and found nothing so it's not looking good. The longer it goes on the less hopeful we are,'' Metcalfe said.

His advice for boaties was simple: ''Don't drink and go fishing, wear a lifejacket, and bring some form of communication like a cellphone.''

Northland Search and Rescue boss Senior Sergeant Cliff Metcalfe at Matauri Bay yesterday. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Northland Search and Rescue boss Senior Sergeant Cliff Metcalfe at Matauri Bay yesterday. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Metcalfe said the situation would be reassessed Thursday morning but it was likely the search would be scaled down, given that every possible location had been searched in Wednesday's ideal conditions.

More than a dozen Coastguard volunteers were involved in Tuesday night's search.