Orion finds Fijian after six days adrift

Mateyawa Curubula was elated when the NZ airmen spotted him. Picture / RNZAF

A man spent six days adrift in a small runabout in the ocean off a remote Fiji island eating raw fish before he was found by a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion.

Mateyawa Curubula was on a diving trip with friends off the island Ono-i-Lau when his ordeal began last Wednesday.

While his friends went diving, Mr Curubula stayed on board the small fibreglass boat. However, it developed engine problems and the 21-year-old was unable to stop the craft drifting away.

By the time his friends surfaced the boat had drifted out of sight. His friends made it back to land on another boat and raised the alarm.

The Fijian Rescue Coordination Centre conducted a search but was unable to find Mr Curubula.

Fiji Navy Maritime Commander Joeli Cawaki said the search was extensive but eventually the rescue coordination centre sought help from French authorities and then from New Zealand.

A French Navy aircraft from New Caledonia searched unsuccessfully on Sunday morning. The RNZAF Orion left Whenuapai Air Base in West Auckland on Monday afternoon - by which time Mr Curubula had been drifting for five days.

The Orion searched a large area of ocean the next day and spotted Mr Curubula's boat about 120km southwest of Ono-i-Lau.

Joint Forces New Zealand spokeswoman Major Jules Lovelock said survival equipment and a radio were dropped to the boat and a relieved Mr Curubula confirmed that he was the person for whom the New Zealand airmen were searching.

After six days surviving on fish and limited drinking water, Mr Curubula quickly finished the water and food dropped to him and radioed for more.

The Orion notified the Fiji Navy of his position so a Fiji naval vessel could be sent to pick him up.

Commander Cawaki said Mr Curubula was in good health when he was found and he was dropped off on Ono-i-Lau on Tuesday.

A Fiji Navy spokesman said yesterday that people in Mr Curubula's village were celebrating his return with a feast.

The Orion returned to New Zealand last night.

Flight Lieutenant Andy Nielsen said when they found Mr Curubula, the lost man could not contain his excitement.

"He was elated," he said. "He was jumping up and down. He took his shirt off and was waving it in the air.

"He maintained that for about 15 minutes."