SURVIVOR'S STORY TOLD

By Lindy Laird


"Today in History" segments may never stop including the tragedy that one brave woman lived through on a storm-ravaged Northland coast 13 years ago.
Judith Sleavin's husband Michael, their son Ben, 10, and daughter Annie, 7, perished when the family's yacht, the Melinda Lee, was rammed at night by a freighter 35 kilometres off Cape Brett.
With a broken back and a head injury that will haunt her for the rest of her life, Judith Sleavin survived against all odds. She spent 42 hours clinging to an upturned, semi-inflated rubber dinghy in high seas, before being washed up on a remote, rocky bay.
A search plane spotted her "lifeless" body 20 hours after she had been smashed on to the beach so violently she would later have surgery to remove embedded shell and rock.
Physically in agony, Judith clung to life as bravely as she had clung to the dinghy. Emotionally, she was drowning in unimaginable grief and fear.
Ben was probably killed instantly and went down with the Melinda Lee, which sank within minutes of being hit. Michael and Judith had only moments to find each other and Annie in the maelstrom and get into the flimsy dinghy.
The little craft was overturned several times but both parents were able to get Annie and themselves back on board.
But nine hours into their ordeal, high seas and hypothermia prevented Michael and Annie making it back that last, fatal time. Helpless and hurt, her lower body paralysed, too far away in the rough sea to reach them, Judith saw them both drown.
Michael, in a pool of calm in his final seconds, managed to send her a loving message before he disappeared under water. Fighting fear and panic and calling comfort and encouragement to Annie, Judith saw her little girl's movements fade until she became still.
For many hours, while wind and current pushed the dinghy toward land, Annie's body floated just beyond her mother's reach.

Judith would say later it was as if the child's spirit had taken her time to leave, had accompanied her mother as far as possible on the journey.
It was then that Judith made the ultimate choice, and summoned all her will to stay alive rather than join her loved ones in death. She would survive so someone could tell their family and friends what had happened; so her husband's and children's deaths and courage would not go unknown.
Their stories - and of Judith's recovery - were told to her rescuers, medical and psychological carers, to people who became close to her in Whangarei where she settled (among them the "Wild Girls", a group of local women who formed shelter around the American stranger and are now her lifelong friends), and to family and friends in the United States.
The story was also told to investigators, assessors, lawyers, courts and even the US Senate, when maritime law proved such an ass the Sleavins' case sparked its review.
But it was never told publicly.
For 13 years, as Judith rebuilt her life, she remained staunchly, politely, closed to the media and the public. Then, when she was ready, she turned to her trusted friend, the Sleavin family's former sailing buddy, and little Annie Rose's godmother, Hester Rumberg.
Judith's experience had some years ago seen Dr Rumberg, a radiologist, help her set up the Sleavin Family Foundation for maritime safety.
This week Dr Rumberg's book,Ten Degrees of Reckoning, about the Sleavins' tragedy and the outcome was released.
Part biography, partly cathartic, Ten Degrees of Reckoning is intelligent, sensitive and well written. It is named for the 10 degrees the Pan Grace's first mate belatedly ordered the ship to be steered away from the yacht in its path on that fateful night.
She is now a Whangarei businesswoman who spends several months a year in Oregon, US, and Judith Sleavin's courage and dignity have earned her a great degree of respect. This tender book underlines those qualities - but above all it is about deep love, profound loss and the triumph of will.

- Northern Advocate

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