Wahine survivor Kay McCormick thought she was was dead until she saw the white cross of a Wellington monastery rising above the icy cold sea 44 years ago today.

The 63-year-old artist was among a group of survivors and rescuers who gathered at the Museum of Wellington City and Sea to mark the anniversary of the tragedy.

The Wahine interisland ferry struck Barrett Reef at the entrance to Wellington Harbour during extreme weather on the morning of April 10, 1968.

Hundreds of passengers and crew were forced into cold, rough seas as they waited to be rescued, but 51 people did not survive.

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The museum today screened previously unseen amateur 8mm film footage of the Wahine. The footage, shot by Enid Slim from her house in Seatoun, was donated to the museum by her son.

Mrs McCormick, a 19-year-old student nurse at Wellington Hospital at the time of the disaster, found it tough to watch as the memories flooded back.

She had been returning to Wellington for Easter when the ship struck the reef.

"From the moment I woke up I thought I was going to die because the sea was just so rough," she told APNZ

"I knew I couldn't make it through the sea like that. It was just terrible, going right over the ferry, every wave."

The worst moment was when the badly listing ship flipped over, making it almost impossible to stand.

"You could just hear everybody screaming, and the crashing and breaking as it fell onto the side of the ship as it fell."

Mrs McCormick had to climb over the ship's handrail to get into the cold sea, which she said felt warmer than the air outside.

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"There was an officer behind me, and he handed me a baby and I handed it into an inflatable raft that was just in the sea beside me. And then I climbed into the raft too.

"From the sea I think I saw the ship go. And then the tug came and picked us up off the raft."

Mrs McCormick remembers seeing a cold, purple hand reaching up for the tug boat - and then realised it was her own.

Even after making it on to the tug, she thought she was going to die.

"I didn't realise I was going to survive until, as we were coming in on the tug, I could see the monastery with the big white cross on the red brick building up above Oriental Bay. And I thought 'I must still be alive, because that looks like Oriental Bay'.

"But I always thought I was going to die. I was worried how long it would take and how cold it would be."

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The survivors were taken to the ferry terminal where they were given a blanket and a hot meal. They were allowed one phone call each - a call that brought great relief to Mrs McCormick's mother in Napier.

Mrs McCormick said it had been very hard to survive.

"You think it would be easy, but for a long time I found it very difficult to keep going, because I knew I was going to die on the day. And so it was hard to not be dead."

For a fortnight after the disaster she woke up screaming, and even today sometimes has nightmares after talking about her ordeal.

"It gets easier," she said.