A service will be held on Saturday to mark the 40th anniversary of the deaths of 16 people in the Capitaine Bougainville disaster, Northland's worst shipping tragedy.

The ship's captain, Frenchman Jean-Raymond Thomas - who lost his New Zealand wife, Philippa, infant daughter and two stepchildren in the tragedy - will be at the ceremony at the Capitaine Bougainville Memorial at Whananaki South. An engine-room fire and atrocious weather claimed the freighter on September 3, 1975, off the Whananaki coast. Benoit Marcenac, managing director of Sofrana Unilines, which owned the ship, said plans had been finalised for Saturday's service and any member of the public could attend.

"At 11am, we will gather at the bottom of the hill of the Capitaine Bougainville memorial. The meeting point is 'Graham's old house' at Whananaki South. We will be welcomed with karakia, right by the shed of the house," Mr Marcenac said.

"We will then walk up to the Capitaine Bougainville memorial on the hill overlooking Whananaki South. It is a 25-minute beautiful walk and the track is extremely well maintained. With everyone gathered by the memorial, a service will be held. We will then walk back to the car park, where food and refreshments will be served around 1pm."

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He said as well as Mr Thomas other survivors and rescuers were coming, some from Australia.

A 30th anniversary service was held at the site 10 years ago.

"For me, it was an emotional day, but it was a kind of emotion that will help a man of my age to become an old man nicely, in serenity," Mr Thomas told the Northern Advocate on that occasion.

The 3614-tonne cargo vessel, carrying a crew of 29 and eight passengers, was en route from Auckland to Sydney. It was taking meat and dairy products, but a fire broke out in the engine room and crew and passengers were forced to abandon it.