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Watch: Jacinda Ardern pays tribute to victims and survivors of 1968 ferry tragedy 50 years on

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has paid tribute to those who lost their lives and the survivors of the Wahine ferry tragedy on the 50th anniversary of the maritime disaster.

The Prime Minister spoke at a memorial ceremony in Wellington today for the 53 people who died. Source: 1 NEWS

"You can define the generations by those who remember Wahine, and those who've been told the stories," Ms Ardern told the Wahine survivors, rescuers and families at a memorial service in Wellington this morning.

"Everyone has a story but no-one remembers it quite like those who were involved."

The Wahine capsized in Wellington harbour 50 years ago today.

As the overnight ferry from Lyttelton entered the harbour with 734 passengers and crew onboard, she faced huge seas and winds.

Cyclone Giselle was colliding with another storm coming from the south. The Wahine lost her radar and around 6:40am collided with Barret Reef. The 5 metre diameter propeller snapped like a twig.

The Wahine began to take on water and the order to abandon ship came nearly six hours later. Ultimately, 53 lives were lost.

"I think of the people of Seatoun and Eastbourne, who helped survivors ashore, opened their homes to them, warmed them, clothed them, and helped get them to further care…. Through these efforts, 683 lives were saved," Ms Ardern said.

"The images of the Wahine drifting, helpless in the howling winds and listing into the sea are indelibly imprinted in our national memory," said the Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy.

"For [the bereaved families], Wahine day resonates in a way your fellow citizens cannot begin to imagine. We acknowledge your sorrow and your loss," she said.

KiwiRail's chief executive Peter Reidy said the maritime world learnt a lot from the Wahine, such as the way vessels are designed, better weather forecasting, and an improved safety culture.

Rhys Jones, the chair of the Wahine 50 charitable trust, said while today's events were to commemorate those who died, it was also to remember the 683 who were saved.

They were saved because New Zealanders helped and that's what should really be remembered, he said.