Nearly 70 Wahine survivors are coming from as far away as Thailand, the UK, and Australia to remember New Zealand's worst shipwreck in modern times.

On April 10 it is 50 years since the ferry sank in the entrance to Wellington Harbour, with 734 people on board. Fifty three people died.

Tomorrow morning nearly 70 of the survivors, as well as family members of the 53 who died, and those who helped with the rescue, will gather in Wellington to mark the anniversary of the tragedy.

The dawn service which starts the commemorations will remember not only the tragic losses, but the bravery of emergency services and locals whose immediate response saved 683 lives.

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Wahine 50 Charitable Trust chairman Rhys Jones said remembering the disaster was important not only for the survivors but also the wider community.

Boat owners and other volunteers took to the harbour once they saw the Wahine hit Barrett Reef in the harbour and begin to list. Sea conditions were extremely rough, with the rescuers and volunteers risking their lives in the rescue bid.

"The communities of Eastbourne and Seatoun were galvanised into action. Hospital staff, police, ambulance staff, and many more were also involved," Jones said.

"Thanks to this astonishing response, 683 passengers and crew survived.

"This 50th Wahine Day is a time for remembrance, a time for gratitude, and an opportunity to look to the future.

"In recent times we've had numerous civil emergencies in New Zealand - cyclones, earthquakes, floods, and fire. This 50th anniversary throws a spotlight on the need for us all to be prepared."

The disaster changed maritime safety standards not only in New Zealand, but internationally.

Maritime NZ said that since 1968 there had been changes in how ships were designed and operated, crew training, and voyage planning to include specific planning for any emergency situations.

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The International Safety Management Code guides national maritime laws and now includes requirements for rolling audits of operating systems, surveys of ships, and the need for continuous safety management at all times on board.

Maritime NZ provides the Rescue Coordination Centre NZ and the Maritime Radio Service, co-ordinating responses to distress beacon alerts. Neither of these existed in 1968.

Maritime NZ acting director Stephanie Winson said ships in New Zealand were now all safer, in part because of what happened to the Wahine.

"We cannot create a 'zero risk' maritime industry. By their nature, the sea and weather are changeable and powerful and will always pose at least some risk to shipping.

"However, what we can do, and are doing, is reduce risk by building better ships, developing better ways of operating ships and managing crews, improving training, and having a well co-ordinated response when there is an emergency."

As part of tomorrow's dawn service, Interislander ferry Aratere will sail past Eastbourne at 6.10am, the time the Wahine struck the reef. The Aratere will sound its horn and a wreath will be thrown from the deck of the ferry.

KiwiRail chief executive Peter Reidy said, as well as marking the tragedy, it was important to remember the rail ferry Aramoana which played a role in rescuing Wahine passengers.

"Crew from Aramoana bravely volunteered to man lifeboats in rough seas and rescue passengers and crew from the sinking ferry.

"KiwiRail and Interislander wanted to help commemorate this event as it's important to recognise the lives that were lost and saved, the brave rescuers involved, and the impact it had had on the maritime industry.

"The Wahine disaster helped shape maritime safety systems in New Zealand, and changed the way ferries operate on the Cook Strait.

"Today we have better designed ships, improved bridge management systems, state-of-the-art weather forecasting, comprehensive seafarer training and stricter regulations, all of which mean sailing on the Cook Strait is a much safer experience for customers and crew than it was 50 years ago.

"The Wahine disaster also changed the way New Zealand responds to disasters and gave rise to organisations such as the Life Flight rescue helicopter service, which Interislander supports."

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