Dozens of family members of Wahine disaster victims and survivors will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tragedy at events around Wellington tomorrow.

Of the 734 people on the ferry, which sank in the entrance to Wellington Harbour on April 10, 1968, 51 died at the time. One died of injuries weeks later and another in 1990.

The lead organiser of tomorrow's events, the Wahine 50 Charitable Trust, says survivors told it: "many, many people who assisted them and, in many cases, risked their own lives … have never been fully acknowledged".

A Wahine disaster commemoration service will be held at the Wahine mast memorial on the shore of Wellington Harbour near Eastbourne at 6.30am tomorrow. Photo / Martin Johnston
A Wahine disaster commemoration service will be held at the Wahine mast memorial on the shore of Wellington Harbour near Eastbourne at 6.30am tomorrow. Photo / Martin Johnston

The trust does not view this as an official oversight. It is simply that in the confusion of the disaster there was often little opportunity for survivors to express their thanks to the ferry crews, police, soldiers, boat owners, fishermen, local residents and many others who helped them.

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In 2014, the Government deemed tomorrow's 50-year commemorations for the sinking of the ferry Wahine in Wellington Harbour in 1968 to be
In 2014, the Government deemed tomorrow's 50-year commemorations for the sinking of the ferry Wahine in Wellington Harbour in 1968 to be "tier 2" events.

While some survivors who discovered their rescuers have kept in contact, others are still trying to learn who was involved.

"This is probably the last chance to do that," said trust chairman and former Defence Force chief Rhys Jones.

He said that since many of the survivors now elderly, tomorrow's 50th anniversary would probably be the last big national remembrance day for the disaster.

Wahine 50 organising trust chairman Rhys Jones believes tomorrow's events may be the last big national commemoration for the 1968 disaster. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Wahine 50 organising trust chairman Rhys Jones believes tomorrow's events may be the last big national commemoration for the 1968 disaster. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will attend some of the events.

Jones said the Government had not contributed financially to tomorrow's events, although the Hutt and Wellington city councils had contributed.

Jones said it "would have been nice" to have more support and some funding from the Government. "The survivors would have liked a bit more."

Read more: see our full online presentation, Wahine, 50 years of pain.

The Government in 2014 ranked the 50th anniversary of the Wahine disaster as being of "tier 2" significance.

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The Ministry of Culture and Heritage says tier 1 anniversaries commemorate events "which had a significant impact on the nation as a whole or on the pattern of New Zealand life ...

"The tier 2 list is made up of anniversaries of events which were highly important but not of the same nation-changing magnitude".

This year's tier 1 events will mark the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage and the centenaries of the World War I armistice and the Battle of Le Quesnoy.

A spokeswoman for the ministry said it had provided historical materials, advice, information and promotional support for the Wahine commemoration, but not "further financial assistance".

The Wellington-Lyttelton ferry Wahine had been in service for just over 18 months when it sank in Wellington Harbour on April 10, 1968.
The Wellington-Lyttelton ferry Wahine had been in service for just over 18 months when it sank in Wellington Harbour on April 10, 1968.

A number of commemoration events and presentations have been held over the decades.

In 1969, the Royal Humane Society of New Zealand presented a gold medal to then Prime Minister Keith Holyoake to commemorate the bravery of all Wahine rescuers.

The society also presented a gold medal to the police force, in recognition of the heroic life-saving efforts of officers in the disaster.

The transtasman Historical Medal Society presented silver medals to organisations and individuals who had distinguished themselves in the rescue. Five hundred matching bronze medals were sold to the public to fund the building of a Wahine memorial on the Wellington Harbour foreshore.

Survivors struggle ashore from the stricken Wahine. Photo / Herald Archives
Survivors struggle ashore from the stricken Wahine. Photo / Herald Archives

The Wahine disaster led to the creation of the Wellington Volunteer Coastguard and an air-rescue service. One of tomorrow's events, the "Are you prepared" display, organised by the Search and Rescue Council and the trust, will highlight the importance of rescue services.

Jones said New Zealand is prone to big disasters and relies on volunteer rescue organisations.

Tomorrow's Wahine commemoration events

• 6.30am - Dawn service at the Wahine mast memorial in Eastbourne
• 7.30-8.30am - Wellington Community Choir sings tunes reminiscent of those sung by passengers on the stricken ferry and in its lifeboats. Wellington Railway Station
• From 8.30am - Wahine display of student works, photos and memorabilia. Muritai School, Eastbourne
• 10am-8.30pm - Wahine exhibition and talks. Wellington Museum, Queen's Wharf, Wellington
• 11.30am-4.30pm - Search and rescue display, Shed 6, Queens Wharf
• 11.30am-12pm - Remembrance at Wahine mast memorial, Frank Kitts Park, Wellington central city waterfront. Orpheus Choir performs choral tribute
• 12-12.45pm - Flotilla of about 40 vessels, including some that were involved in the Wahine rescue, steams past the city mast memorial
• 3.30-5pm - Wahine display and afternoon tea, Seatoun School
• 5.30pm - Annual NZ Search and Rescue awards ceremony (invitation only). Shed 6.
• For more information, visit Wahine 50 Trust wahine50.org.nz