After hearing a choir sing in tribute to the Wahine disaster, survivor Muriel Ewan admits the sound takes her back to that day in 1968.

Many rescuers told tales of hearing singing across the waves, as they tried to pull survivors from the sea.

"In the life raft I was on we sang popular songs, hymns, and nursery rhymes especially for the children," Ewan told a packed crowd of survivors, rescuers, and family members of those who died.

"It was a release of tension from the trauma of leaving Wahine in those last terrible moments."

Advertisement

The choral tribute at the 50th anniversary commemorations yesterday was open only to those whose lives were directly touched by the tragedy, and a VIP group paying their respects, including the Prime Minister and the Governor General.

Their performance included a touching medley of the songs which floated over the waves 50 years ago, as survivors tried to keep their spirits up until help arrived.

Earlier in the day, commemorations started at dawn in Eastbourne, where many lost their lives.

John Marryatt now works for the Greater Wellington Regional Council, but in 1968 he had the grim task of clearing a way to Eastbourne after the tragedy and checking for dead bodies on the way.

Marryatt and a doctor whose name he never knew drove the coast road to Eastbourne in a Land Rover with a bulldozer clearing the way in front of them.

Police launch Lady Elizabeth IV, with her crew at attention, during the flotilla steam-past during Wahine 50-year commemoration service in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Police launch Lady Elizabeth IV, with her crew at attention, during the flotilla steam-past during Wahine 50-year commemoration service in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

They stopped at each bay so the doctor could get out to check if the people on the shore were alive or not.

Over the next few days Marryatt had to collect the bodies, sometimes needing to pull them out of tightly wrapped seaweed.

When asked what the remembrance day meant to him, Marryatt began to cry and was unable to speak for a moment.

Advertisement

"I can't really describe it. Just as well I didn't have to get out of the Land Rover, that's all I can say."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the tragedy deeply affected New Zealand, becoming one of the events that defined the country.

"In some ways you can define the generations by those who remember the Wahine, and those who have been told the stories.

Survivor Dr Chris Kirk pays his respects at the memorial in Eastbourne. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Survivor Dr Chris Kirk pays his respects at the memorial in Eastbourne. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"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."

The commemorations made a point of not only remembering those 53 who died in the tragedy, but also the 683 who were saved.

Locals risked their lives by taking their own boats out to pull people from the waves.

To acknowledge the bravery, a flotilla of 50 boats, including current rescue crews and original boats that aided Wahine passenger and crews, paraded past Wellington's Wahine mast memorial at midday.

The cold, wet weather gave those watching from the waterfront the smallest taste of what it would have been like during the desperate rescue mission of 1968.