A deadly maritime accident has left 70 people dead or missing.

About 140 passengers and dozens of vehicles were on board the KM Lestari when damage to its hull forced the captain to ground the vessel on Tuesday afternoon about 300 metres (985 feet) off Selayar island, near the larger island of Sulawesi.

The incident that happened off the coast of Indonesia left some passengers terrified and clinging to the side of the tipped over ferry, while others floated in the sea awaiting help.

Indonesia's disaster agency said 29 people died in the accident while another 41 are still missing. Nearly 70 people have been rescued, it added.

A fleet of smaller boats, including local fishing vessels, worked to save passengers as bad weather prevented larger craft from approaching the stricken ferry, the transportation ministry said.

It added that most passengers had been wearing life jackets.

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"The last passengers on board the boat were evacuated this morning about 12.05am," Agus H. Purnomo, a director at the ministry of transportation, said in a statement.

"The captain and ship owner were the last two people to get off the ship."

Rescuers are still scouring the coastline for missing passengers.

The 48-metre vessel was sailing from Sulawesi to nearby Selayar island when strong winds and high waves caused damage to its portside hull and it began taking on water.

The captain deliberately ran the boat aground close to shore in an effort to reduce drownings at sea, the transportation ministry said.

The ship was also carrying some $2 million worth of rupiah currency destined for a local bank branch on Selayar to pay local civil servants a bonus.

The money and the two officials tasked with guarding it were missing, South Sulawesi acting governor Sumarsono, who goes by one name, told CNN Indonesia TV, adding that the authorities were searching for both.

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