Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter staff battled some of the biggest waves they've had to deal with in 15 years during a dramatic rescue off the Northland Coast.

Mark Cannell, chief crewman for the rescue helicopter, described the conditions as "the second worst I have been out in, in 15 or 16 years".

However, they were prepared for them as MetService had already issued a strong wind and rain warning for the area on Monday.

The waves were so big they were breaking over the survivors in the liferaft which was languishing - and being thrown around - in the water.

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It made for a tricky rescue but Cannell was impressed with his crew's ability to get all four out of the water in just over 20 minutes.

Four people were on their yacht, understood to be on their way back from Fiji, when it struck trouble off East Cape and sank on Monday, killing well-known Tauranga sailor and local Act Party candidate Stuart Pedersen.

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His wife, Pamela, was airlifted to hospital in a critical condition while two others were in a moderate condition.

The two men are Pamela Pedersen's brother-in-law Steve, and Freedom Church member Bruce Goodwin. They have since been released from hospital.

The church posted on Facebook that Goodwin was "understandably in shock" but now recovering.

The liferaft, containing two survivors, pictured in the surf from inside the Westpac Rescue Helicopter on Monday off the coast of Cape Brett. Photo / AWRH
The liferaft, containing two survivors, pictured in the surf from inside the Westpac Rescue Helicopter on Monday off the coast of Cape Brett. Photo / AWRH

Cannell talked through their rescue today, and said they were already prepared for rough conditions in the area.

He described the conditions as "quite trying" as despite being a way offshore, the waves were so big they were breaking.

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"The waves were quite a way offshore of course, but the swells were big enough with the wind conditions that some were starting to break.

"Instead of just a large swell, some of the waves were actually starting to crest and break over people. There's a bit of footage that shows the raft going under at one stage."

He said they could tell as soon as they got close - at a height of about 150m [500 feet] - that the swell was big.

"So once we were down at winching height [21m] they were pretty significant walls of water."

The first out of the water was Pedersen, followed by Mrs Pedersen.

However, getting the two men out wasn't easy as the liferaft was being thrown around by the massive swell.

"We just had to ensure that we got the medic in the right place."

It meant they had to anticipate the raft's movement, without the pilot - hovering about 25m off the ground - being able to see what's going on.

Meanwhile, one of the rescue chopper's sea swimmer was on the raft trying to hook them onto the winch.

Inside the cockpit of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter as they carry out a precarious rescue of four people from a liferaft 30 miles north of Cape Brett on Monday. Photo / AWRH
Inside the cockpit of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter as they carry out a precarious rescue of four people from a liferaft 30 miles north of Cape Brett on Monday. Photo / AWRH

"With that kind of sea state you can't keep tension on the winch cable, so of course as soon as the swell drops away, if you don't have enough slack then they get plucked out whether they're ready to go or not."

The rescue took about 22 minutes.

"I think 22 minutes, given what we were faced and the conditions, that was reasonably good."

Cannell said he wasn't able to talk to the two survivors after they were winched on board, but said they appeared relieved given what they had been through.

"Getting them into the aircraft, we got some heating on and then set about getting them back to appropriate clinical care as quickly as we could."

They were then airlifted to Northland Emergency Service Trust's Kensington Park Base in Whāngārei.

THE OCCUPANTS

ACT Party leader David Seymour said its members were in a state of shock after the news of Pedersen's death.

He called Pedersen an "incredibly kind and hospitable man".

Pedersen, along with another survivor, Bruce Goodwin, were both members of the Tauranga Yacht and Power Boat Club.

The other two survivors were Pedersen's wife, Pamela, and her brother-in-law Steve.

Both surviving men have been discharged from hospital. However, Mrs Pedersen remains in a critical condition.

Freedom Church - where Goodwin attends - called for its members to pray for peace, comfort and recovery after the tragedy.

"Please pray for Bruce Goodwin, a member of our church, and for the rest of the crew who were involved in a tragic sailing accident.

"Sadly, one crew member lost their life and one is now in critical care. Bruce has been released from hospital, but is understandably in shock".