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Tragedy Ends Family's Sailing Adventure : Accident: Their yacht is hit off New Zealand. The Santa Clarita woman is saved but husband, children are lost at sea.

November 27, 1995|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was the middle of the night. Seas off the New Zealand shore were heavy. Without warning, an enormous ship tore into the 47-foot Melinda Lee.

The ship, a freighter perhaps, moved on. The yacht, carrying a crew of four--a Santa Clarita family on the around-the-world sailing adventure they had dreamed of for years--sank.

Benjamin Thomas Sleavin, 9, went down with the yacht. His sister, 7-year-old Anna Rose, and his parents--Michael and Judith Ann Sleavin--scrambled into a dinghy. But the seas were savage, and the little girl disappeared into the blackness. Her father dove in after her. Neither was seen again.

On Sunday, some 62 hours after the collision, Judith Ann Sleavin was rescued after she washed up on New Zealand's North Island, then provided from a hospital bed the grim details of the fantasy trip that had ended so disastrously. Relatives and police officials who spoke with her passed on her account to The Times.

As Monday dawned in New Zealand, authorities there said there was no hope of finding her husband or children--and friends and family back home tried to reconstruct what had gone so wrong with the voyage that the Sleavins had planned for a decade. The couple finally quit their jobs in 1993 and set sail.

"This was their dream--to sail around the world with their children," said a friend, Richard Lull of Hermosa Beach, who joined the Sleavins last year for one leg of the trip, in the Caribbean.

Added Jonnie Fritz, a neighbor in Santa Clarita: "I remember asking [Judith Sleavin] if she was prepared to take two small children on a trip like that. She told me that they were going to be wearing life preservers and they would be all right."

Michael Sleavin was a salesman. Judith Sleavin worked as a civil engineer. He was from Washington state, she from Los Angeles.

They married 12 years ago, friends and relatives recalled--and immediately set about planning their adventure, squirreling away their savings, trying out different yachts, taking the measure of the open sea on excursions to Hawaii.

In Florida, they found and bought what Richard Lull called a "good, strong boat," the 20-ton Melinda Lee. They had it shipped west and kept it at a harbor in the Channel Islands. On weekends, friends said, they put it through its paces.

The yacht was well-equipped with safety equipment, including beacons, radios and flares, said friends and authorities in New Zealand.

When they set off in early 1993, they expected to be gone for about five years. "The first six months [were] the hardest time," as the family adjusted to life at sea, Judith Sleavin told Cruising World magazine in a short story that ran in its July, 1995, issue.

The children--blond Benjamin and dark-haired Anna--loved life at sea, friends said. They kept up with their schoolwork through extension classes, their mother teaching the youngest to read.

Older brother Benjamin had a passion for Legos, said a friend who asked not to be named. "They were such bright and happy children," she added. "They were beautiful children."

Aboard the Melinda Lee, they first journeyed toward and through the Panama Canal, then up the eastern coast of Central America and into the Caribbean Sea.

Over the next several months, they made port in such locales as Honduras, Mexico and even Cuba. Then it was back through the canal and on to the South Pacific.

The Melinda Lee left the Tonga Islands on Nov. 16. It was due this past Friday in the Bay of Islands, a popular tourist resort in New Zealand's North Island, according to John Meads, a New Zealand national police inspector.

When the family did not arrive, search planes were launched Sunday morning, said Meads, who also serves as the nation's police rescue coordinator.

About 4:15 p.m. Sunday, crews flying over a rocky shoreline by Cape Brett--near the Bay of Islands--saw an "upturned hull . . . and standing next to it was a figure waving at them," Meads said in a telephone interview.

Dehydrated and complaining of a back injury, Judith Sleavin was taken by helicopter to Whangarei Base Hospital. A nursing supervisor there said Sunday night that she was in fair condition with cuts and two cracked vertebrae.

"Taking everything into consideration, she's reasonably comfortable," the supervisor said.

Details of the accident remain sketchy, Meads said. Police said Judith Sleavin told them she was standing the night watch--part of the routine on a yacht on the open seas--when a huge ship suddenly appeared, bore down on their yacht and tore it apart.

The accident took place between 2 and 3 a.m. Friday, when the yacht was 30 miles offshore, Meads said.

Judith Sleavin described the bigger ship as a "large, long ship," perhaps a freighter, he said.

After the collision, Benjamin Sleavin was not seen again, Meads said. The others made it to the dinghy.

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