Sylvia Nathan vividly recalls her late sister, Mavis, phoning her from Christchurch the day before the Wahine ferry disaster and urging her to think twice about taking the trip.

The sinking of the Lyttelton–Wellington ferry Wahine 50 years ago today was New Zealand's worst modern maritime disaster.

Fifty-one people lost their lives that day, another died several weeks later and a 53rd victim died in 1990 from injuries sustained in the wreck.

Would-be rescuers stood helplessly on the beach at Seatoun as the Wahine succumbed to one of the worst storms recorded in New Zealand history.

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Sylvia Nathan, 93, from Matua, who turns 94 on Anzac Day, said the weather forecast in the hours leading up to the ferry crossing was "not good".

Nathan was travelling to Auckland to attend an annual Passover celebration at the World Wide Church of God with her late husband, Lawrie, and her best friend, Peggy Millar.

In the aftermath of the Wahine disaster.
In the aftermath of the Wahine disaster.

Nathan said her late sister, Mavis Browne, rang her from Christchurch where the couple were living at the time and tried to persuade her not to go on the trip.

"I remember telling her 'Oh well, don't worry there are worst things that can happen at sea'. It's something I will never forget.

"Nothing happened on board that night but I wasn't sleeping because by 9pm the sea conditions were very, very rough," Nathan said.

By 6am the next morning the sea was even rougher and the ship was leaning so much it was difficult to keep upright, she said.

"Then we heard an almighty bang and were all ordered to put on our lifejackets and make our way to the top observation deck to prepare to evacuate the boat.

"My husband literally dragged me, four or five others standing behind us into an inflatable liferaft which was open on both ends and had a canopy over top," she said.

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"We were the last onboard the Wahine after other passengers climbed into the last lifeboats and many others, including elderly people, jumped into the churning seas.

"We knew we were in deep trouble as we were up to our necks in water most the time as the waves surged up and down and tossed us all around," Nathan said.

"Once we got away from the boat one of the men said they heard scratching on the bottom of the liferaft and my husband helped pull an elderly lady and two young Maori girls onboard," she said.

Sylvia Nathan. Photo / George Novak
Sylvia Nathan. Photo / George Novak

Her friend was in another part of the ship and had to jump to safety and was rescued from the waters by a police officer.

Nathan, her husband and Millar hugged when they were reunited on the shore.

"We all cried and cried. it was such a terrible experience and tragedy - particularly having to walk past al the bodies on the beach, " she said.

Nathan has also survived the first of the two Christchurch earthquakes, lost a kidney after a renal blockage, and had a stroke two and a half years ago.

"I'm a disaster waiting to happen but I'm a survivor," she told the Bay of Plenty Times.