A rescue helicopter pilot says the well-known Tauranga man who died after his yacht sank off the coast of Northland had become entangled in the ropes trailing a dropped life raft.

Former ACT candidate Stuart Pedersen died after he jumped from the sinking yacht on Monday afternoon.

His wife Pamela, her brother-in-law, and good friend Bruce Goodwin all survived with the help of rescuers.

The group had been travelling back from a trip around the Pacific Islands when the boat began to take on water.

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Intensive care paramedic for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Karl Taylor was on-call when the crew was tasked to reports of a sinking yacht off Cape Brett near the Bay of Islands.

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The stricken yacht had lost its life raft, leaving the four people adrift in the rough seas.

Taylor said he knew that the rescue was going to be "taxing" as they flew over the sea, whipping swells up to 10m and gusts getting up to 50 knots.

An Air Force P3 Orion also tasked to the scene found the sailors first, dropping a life raft for the four.

Pamela Pedersen and Stuart Pedersen. Photo / Facebook
Pamela Pedersen and Stuart Pedersen. Photo / Facebook

Two of the survivors managed to get themselves into the raft, but Taylor said it appeared the other two had become entangled in the ropes trailing the raft.

Taylor explained that life rafts were equipped with various ropes to keep them steady in the water when deployed.

Taylor was winched down to cut the two people free and pull them out of the water. However, both were "very unresponsive" at that stage.

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The four people would have been in the water for more than an hour and would have been "exhausted and cold" in such "trying conditions", he said.

"People don't often last long" in cold seas like that, he said.

Pedersen was one of the people tangled in the water and died during the rescue.

Taylor said it was nothing short of incredible that the other three managed to survive given the circumstances.

The life raft, containing two survivors, pictured in the surf from the Westpac Rescue Helicopter on Monday off the coast of Cape Brett. Photo / Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter
The life raft, containing two survivors, pictured in the surf from the Westpac Rescue Helicopter on Monday off the coast of Cape Brett. Photo / Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter

He put their survival down to lifejackets, decent clothing, but most of all - having a personal locator beacon.

Without the beacon, he said it would have been like finding a "needle in a haystack" looking for the yachties in those conditions.

He said "the more time it takes to find them, the less time we have to rescue them" as fuel begins to burn out.

The crew used their teamwork with absolute precision.

The helicopter pilot was holding hover in high winds and low visibility, while the winch operator worked to make sure Taylor was in the right place.

Pamela Petersen was freed from the tangle and taken to Whangarei Hospital in a critical condition. Yesterday, she was moved from the hospital's intensive care unit to a ward.

The two other survivors were moderately hurt but discharged from hospital yesterday.

Taylor said he was unsure as to how the yachties managed to lose the lifeboat, but the investigation into the incident would likely uncover that.

Tauranga Power Boat and Yacht Club commodore Andrew Knowles said Goodwin's personal locator beacon, which had been attached to his lifejacket, had been essential to the group's rescue.

"They were incredibly lucky that one of them had a personal locator beacon," Knowles said.

"Those three lives that were saved were saved by that action [of activating the beacon]. Otherwise, we would be dealing with four dead bodies."

Knowles has been busy dealing with not only his own shock at Pedersen's death but also the grief of other club members and sailors.

"I'm a bit cut up about it but so are a lot of people. There's not much you can do about that."

Former club commodore Roger Clark said news of Pedersen's death was shocking.

"I just literally cried when I heard he's gone. He's just such a good guy."

The club was gathering informally on Friday to honour Pedersen and support the others. Pedersen's funeral was still being organised.

- Additional reporting Kiri Gillespie