"Thirty-seven people have been rescued so far and admitted at the village clinic," Oswald Hanciles, the deputy transport and aviation minister, told reporters.

"We have also recovered the bodies of eight people but they do not include any children."

Grieving families

Dozens of grieving parents and relatives kept vigil on the sandy beaches of Tombo, hoping to be reunited with their missing children.

Most of the victims were children returning to the capital, Freetown, after spending their holidays in the town of Waterloo, 12km away.

"We are praying for our missing kids who were on board the craft and we don't know whether they survived the disaster or not," one parent, Bintu Sesay, said.

Morie Lengor, the deputy police inspector-general, said a police and military rescue mission was looking for survivors.

"Police suspect that the cause of the accident for now may be due to overloading or engine failure," he said.

Boat accidents occur frequently in West Africa due to a lack of maintenance and overcrowding.

The region is currently being battered by seasonal storms and heavy rain that on land have already killed more than 160 people and displaced thousands more.