Air Force Orion spots lucky 13 after three weeks at sea

Thirteen Fijians who have been adrift at sea for nearly three weeks are heading back to dry land after being spotted by an Air Force Orion.

The motor on board the group's 12m wooden boat, the Manu Duatagi, is believed to have broken down shortly after they left Vanua Levu on July 12.

Ten passengers were to be dropped off on the small island of Naqelelevu the following day.

The crew had then planned to go fishing for up to five days.

Air Force spokesman Squadron Leader Ric Cullinane said the boat's owners raised the alarm when the Manu Duatagi's crew failed to arrive back at Naqelelevu by July 20.

"No one had realised until then that anything was wrong because, as you know, in the islands things don't run to tight schedules."

An initial search by Fijian authorities failed to find any trace of the boat and the search area ballooned out to 165,000sq km.

But following a request for help, an Air Force Orion left Whenuapai on Wednesday morning.

Using tide and other meteorological data, it found the missing boat by mid-afternoon, 500km northwest of Vanua Levu.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jeremy Ramsden, the New Zealand High Commission's defence adviser in Suva, said yesterday the 13 aboard had waved wildly at the Orion when it flew overhead.

"I imagine that after so many days at sea they would have been more than happy to be spotted.

"I guess in time they might have come up against land.

"But I think they're very lucky individuals to have been found so quickly, given the size of the search area."

All aboard were Fijian locals and they were believed to be in good health despite their ordeal.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ramsden said the Manu Duatagi had been seaworthy. The group had been unable to raise the alarm because they had no radio equipment.

The 13 were picked up last night by a Japanese fishing boat, the Shinsei Maru, and were heading back to Vanua Levu.

They were expected to arrive in the next three to four days