A Rotorua man who survived the Wahine disaster as a university student has returned from the 50-year anniversary commemorations with a new "sense of association to the whole event".

Stuart Corson, a chemical engineering student at the University of Canterbury, was on his way home to Rotorua for his 21st birthday celebration when he took the ferry from Lyttelton.

Shortly before 7am on April 10, 1968, the Wahine ran aground on Barrett Reef in Wellington Harbour with 734 passengers and crew on board.

Read more: Wahine: Tragedy forced Cook Strait ferry bosses to respect the ocean

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Fifty-one people died that day, another several weeks later and another died in 1990 from injuries sustained in the disaster.

Corson had little contact with other survivors after the sinking and that motivated him to go to the commemorations in Wellington last Tuesday.

Spectators line the foreshore to watch the flotilla for the Wahine 50-year commemoration service. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Spectators line the foreshore to watch the flotilla for the Wahine 50-year commemoration service. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"An important player in the [commemorations] was the weather; it set the tone. There was driving rain and a southerly wind off the Cook Strait. It took us back clearly to the day," he said after returning home to Rotorua.

Despite the weather on Tuesday, Corson was up before 5am to head to the dawn service at Eastbourne.

The programme included services, displays and the showing of a short film, and also allowed time for people to mix.

"There was a lot of conversation. Not necessarily about the day, but what people had done with their lives since. It was the value of being together."

Corson was glad the role of the rescuers was not underplayed.

"It was recognised that they had not been properly thanked in the past ... We were reminded not only to remember those who died but also to celebrate those who lived. It could have been a lot worse. That comes back to the rescuers who took the initiative when the official side was slow in responding."

"A policeman spoke and his memories were enough to give you nightmares. Clearly, the rescuers had a really tough time, a lot of trauma. Then they just put clean clothes on the next day and went back to work."

Corson said he did not know any of the attendees well, but knew who some of them were.

"It was special seeing the faces again. Those who were in the media or books afterward. It gave you a sense of association to the whole event."

At the reunion lunch, he sat beside a woman and her daughter who was a baby at the time.

"The baby was now 50 and she had her own child there, so three generations sat with me."

The Eastbourne and Seatoun communities brought food for the survivors and rescuers for morning and afternoon tea at the primary schools.