Wahine survivors, family members of those who died, and rescuers, have gathered at Wellington's waterfront for a choral tribute.
Cold winds and driving rain have forced the 50th anniversary tribute indoors to the Shed 6 events space.
The choral tribute isn't open to the public, but is instead a special event for those whose lives were directly touched by the tragedy.
As well as the choral performance to mark the sad occasion, those gathered bowed their heads for prayer and reflection on the tragedy.
Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy told the assembly that the Wahine anniversary would always have special meaning for them.
"Fifty years ago New Zealand and the rest of the world watched the tragic events unfold in Wellington Harbour.
"The images of the Wahine drifting, helpless, then listing into our sea, are indelibly in our nation's memories.
"We pay tribute to those who lost their lives that day. The bravery of those who played a part bringing people to shore in what was an unprecedented community response to a maritime disaster."
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the tragedy deeply affected New Zealand, becoming one of the events that define the country.
"In some ways you can define the generations by those who remember the Wahine, and those who have been told the stories.
"My mother recalls being on the bus when she heard the news, and knowing a friend was on that sailing.
"Everyone has a story.
"Sometimes the worst of circumstances can bring out who we are as a nation.
"The courage of those people who rushed to their own boats to help. Those who stood shoulder to shoulder in the surf, pulling survivors out of the water."
Following the choral tribute there will be a tribute to the rescuers on Wellington's inner harbour.
About 50 vessels, most of them on the official rescue "call out" list, together with some of the boats that took part in the rescue of Wahine passengers and crew, will parade past the Wahine mast memorial by Frank Kitts Park.