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Tuesday, November 28, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Three Die On Family's Dream Voyage -- Lone Survivor Loses Husband, 2 Children When Sailboat Sinks

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES - 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 47-foot yacht, carrying a crew of four - a Santa Clarita, Calif., family formerly from the Tacoma area, 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, a native of Tacoma and Judith Ann - scrambled into a dinghy. But the seas were savage and the little girl disappeared into the blackness. Her father dived in after her. Neither was seen again.

On Sunday, some 62 hours after the crash, Judith Ann Sleavin was rescued when 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 Los Angeles 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, Calif., 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."

A woman reached by telephone at the Tacoma home of Michael Sleavin's relatives declined to discuss the tragedy last night. The woman, who did not want to give her name, said the family had just learned of the accident.

Michael Sleavin was a salesman, originally from Tacoma, where he graduated from Bellarmine Preparatory School, then from Western Washington University in Bellingham. He formerly was a marketing manager and director of sales for Thousand Trails in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Judith Sleavin, a civil engineer graduate from Seattle University, is from Los Angeles.

They married 12 years ago, friends and relatives recalled - and immediately set about planning for their adventure, squirreling away their salaries, 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 on the water, friends said. They kept up with their schoolwork through extension classes, their mother teaching the youngest to read.

"They were such bright and happy children," said a friend who asked not to be identified. "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 last 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 back pain and cuts.

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

Details of the crash 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.

At least five cargo ships were reportedly sailing through stormy waters where the Sleavins' yacht was hit.

Retired Sausalito, Calif., salesman Chris Wagner, 55, and his wife Nedra, said their yacht Magic Carpet was part of the flotilla of several yachts sailing with the Sleavins from Tonga to New Zealand. They tracked five cargo ships in the area with radar in the hours before the collision.

Wagner said he radioed each ship to be on the lookout for yachts "but only one responded."

Radio New Zealand reported that officials were investigating whether a Russian-registered ship, Kapitan Byankin, was involved.

The ship's captain, Alexander Anatoriric, told New Zealand Press Association: "I don't know of any accident."

Locals estimated that winds that night roared up to 50 knots, and the dinghy "kept flipping over in the heavy seas," forcing the parents and daughter to cling to a rope trailing behind the small craft in the water, Meads said.

"Eventually," he said, "the daughter drifted away. The husband swam after her and they both drowned."

It was not known how long Judith Sleavin drifted at sea before the dinghy washed ashore.

The prevailing wind in New Zealand blows from the northwest, Meads said, adding, "I think she was lucky. A northeasterly wind happened to be blowing. It washed her to shore. Otherwise, she would have been washed out to sea, and never been found."

Back in California, relatives grieved for the family one recalled as "the greatest . . . outgoing . . . wonderful."

Their only consolation was that the hospitalized Judith Slavin was "OK, she'll be OK," said one close relative, who spoke with her by phone.

"It's a hard pill to swallow," said a family friend who had spent time on the Melinda Lee and also talked with Judith Slavin. "It's little consolation when you lose the rest of the family."

Michael Sleavin's survivors include his parents, Catherine and Jack Sleavin of Tacoma; four sisters, including Colleen Polley of Port Orchard; a brother, John Sleavin of Portland; aunts Eileen Ankerson of Pullman and Alice Vinson of Spokane; and an uncle, Ray Ankerson of Spokane.

A memorial service for the family is set for Thursday at 11 a.m. at St. Patrick's Church in Tacoma.

The family suggests that remembrances be sent to the Narrows branch of Key Bank, 6901 6th Ave., Tacoma, 98406 to help with medical and other expenses.

Information from Seattle Times staff reporters Dave Birkland and Dee Norton is included in this report.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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