Aircrew on a Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) P-3K2 Orion has found two boats after they went missing near Kiribati, with one boat 120 nautical miles from land.

The two boats, which had been reported as missing separately, were found in quick succession, with four survivors.

The joint search and rescue operation was coordinated by the Rescue Coordination Centre Fiji after initial search efforts from Kiribati authorities failed to locate the two vessels. Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) assisted with drift modelling, details of the search area, and communications with the RNZAF Orion.

Two survivors from the first vessel reported missing were rescued by the Kiribati Patrol Boat after a rendezvous coordinated from the Orion. Kiribati authorities and RCCNZ then coordinated a merchant vessel to assist with the rescue of the second boat. The aircraft remained overhead until the vessel arrived to rescue the two men on that boat.

The Orion left RNZAF Base Auckland on Wednesday to overnight and refuel in Fiji, so it could begin the search yesterday for a five-metre wooden fishing vessel, which had gone missing near Kiribati.

That vessel had been reported as having gone missing while fishing between Tarawa and Maiana Islands and had last been seen on 30 October.

Overnight on Wednesday, the RNZAF was asked to look for the second boat, also reported missing near Kiribati.

On arrival in the search area, the Orion aircrew first located the smaller aluminium boat, 72 nautical miles west of Tarawa. 

A short time later they found the wooden fishing vessel, 120 nautical miles west of Tarawa. 

The aircrew dropped a bag of supplies, including a radio, to the people on the wooden fishing vessel. Once radio contact had been established, they learned that one of the missing men on that boat had died.

Air Component Commander Air Commodore Tim Walshe said the aircrew on P-3K2 long-range maritime surveillance aircraft were highly trained in search and rescue operations.

“We’re pleased to have located four people alive and well on two small boats that were drifting so far from land. Our thoughts are with the friends and family of the person who tragically lost their life,’’ he said.

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