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How Collision Shattered Adventure of a Lifetime : Sailing: After years of meticulous planning, the Santa Clarita family had set sail. Friends, family of sole survivor tell of horror at sea that led to the deaths of her husband and children.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For nearly three years, Judith and Michael Sleavin lived their dream.

They left behind a tract home in the cookie-cutter Los Angeles suburbs to sail the seas with their children. They docked their 47-foot yacht, the Melinda Lee, at exotic ports in Central America, the Caribbean and the South Pacific.

With their children, 9-year-old Benjamin and 7-year-old Anna Rose, they explored rain forests and rivers, waterfalls and mountains and great plateaus.

It was the adventure of a lifetime. “It just doesn’t get any better than this,” Judith Sleavin wrote in one of her frequent letters back to the States. “Sailing at night, with a full moon--what can I say? We are all thoroughly enjoying this lifestyle. All the hard work . . . has finally paid off.”

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But in stormy seas last week off New Zealand, the dream became a nightmare.

A huge ship, perhaps a freighter, slammed the yacht--ultimately leaving both children and their father dead, but sparing Judith Sleavin, who eventually washed up on the rocky New Zealand shore.

On Monday, as new details emerged about her ordeal at sea, grieving friends and relatives wrestled with an unanswerable conundrum: Is it better to have dreamed a dream but been afraid to really live it? Or to have lived it--but have it end in disaster?

“This was a dream you live for,” said a close family friend. “This is what people do. But this is not the way it was supposed to turn out.”

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“I keep going over in my mind what a nightmare this has to be for Judy,” said Barb Robinson, who worked with Michael Sleavin at the Thousand Trails campground in Acton, where he was a longtime manager.

“You’re adrift in a small boat in a big sea. Then you wash up. And there’s the shock factor of knowing that your husband and two kids are gone. That has to be unreal.”

What makes the accident so particularly difficult to comprehend, friends and relatives said repeatedly, is that Judith and Michael Sleavin were experienced sailors, had a well-equipped boat and had taken the greatest precaution of all--giving themselves the luxury of time.

As they planned it, the trip would have lasted five years. They weren’t planning to jam a lifetime into just a few short months.

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“You don’t travel during hurricane season,” a family friend said. “You have the luxury of waiting. The reason they did that was for the kids. They would never have done anything to put the kids in harm’s way on the water.”

Catherine Sleavin, Michael Sleavin’s mother, said: “The children were the most important thing in their life. My Michael always thought he was in heaven just to have his children with him 24 hours a day.”

It was that devotion to family--plus a passion for sailing--that pushed the Sleavins to open waters.

Michael Sleavin took up sailing in college at Western Washington University, his mother said. He and Judith met when they were living in Seattle, and she took up sailing, too.

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To prove to Michael that she had become a good sailor, she crewed one year on a boat that sailed from Port Angeles, Wash., to Oahu. The next year, Catherine Sleavin said, the couple traced the same route in a different boat--together.

“They decided someday it would be nice to have two children, a big boat and enough money to sail around the world,” Catherine Sleavin said. “That’s what they dreamed of doing.”

After moving to Southern California, the couple settled into a standard suburban grind: a home in Santa Clarita; two jobs, he at Thousand Trails, she a civil engineer. Two children. Day care.

All the while, said a close family friend, there was always what the couple called “the boat fund.” Living on one salary, they banked the other.

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Over the course of about a dozen years, they saved up hundreds of thousands of dollars, enough to buy the Melinda Lee outright--for about $200,000--and still have enough in the bank for the $20,000 they estimated that each year at sea would cost.

“You can save a lot of money if you put your mind to it,” said the close friend, who was entrusted with the Sleavin finances while the family was at sea.

When the yacht set sail from California in early 1993, it was loaded to the gunwales--with radios, beacons, flares, food, a computer, a VCR, schoolbooks, Barbie dolls for Anna Rose, Lego blocks for Benjamin and, as Judith Sleavin noted in one letter, 186 rolls of toilet paper.

The Melinda Lee cruised down to and through the Panama Canal, into the Caribbean Sea, then back through the canal and across the Pacific.

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After a few months at sea, the couple’s letters began to reflect their leisurely pace.

“I hardly think about the real world anymore,” Michael Sleavin wrote from Costa Rica.

“Adios from the unemployed, tanned, relaxed, happy, contented Sleavin family,” added his wife.

In a letter dispatched this month from the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific--a letter decorated by the children with drawings of fish, a shark, a jellyfish and a boat--Judith Sleavin mentioned that she was looking forward to cooler weather in New Zealand.

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“We’re all hoping for a nice, easy passage, but it’s impossible to predict the weather for the 1,000 miles ahead of us,” she wrote.

The Melinda Lee left the Tonga Islands on Nov. 16. About 2:30 a.m. Friday, some 30 miles off New Zealand’s North Island, the Sleavins’ 40-foot craft was rolling in high seas and winds of up to 50 knots when, without warning, a huge ship plowed into the yacht.

It remained unclear Monday what type of ship hit the yacht, according to David Turner, a senior sergeant based at the national police station in the North Island town of Whangarei. Several freighters and cargo containers “could have been in the area,” he said.

Judith Sleavin told police the ship tore a 30-foot hole in the Melinda Lee’s port side, Turner said.

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Benjamin Sleavin was asleep below deck, in a bunk believed to be at the point of impact, and the boy is thought “to have died instantly from that alone,” Turner said.

With the boat disintegrating around them, the others scrambled to the deck, Turner said. There, they found that their life raft was gone, knocked off by the impact or washed away, Turner said.

Without the life raft, the three climbed into a dinghy. Michael Sleavin, 42, bereft at losing his son, had to be persuaded to get into the dinghy, his mother said later.

“Benjamin disappeared and I think that broke my son’s heart,” she said.

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Once in the dinghy, the parents and daughter were promptly thrown out by the surging sea, Turner said. For 8 1/2 hours, all three held onto ropes lashed to the overturned hull of the white dinghy, he said.

Then, Turner said, Anna Rose’s strength ebbed, and she slipped away. He said her father went to look for her, but “never came up again.”

After about 42 hours at sea, Judith Sleavin washed ashore Saturday night near Cape Brett, by the popular Bay of Islands tourist area on North Island, Turner said.

Search planes saw the 41-year-old woman Sunday afternoon, about 20 hours later, and she was taken by helicopter to Whangarei Base Hospital with cuts and two cracked vertebrae.

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She was reported in “comfortable” condition, a nursing supervisor said.

Turner said authorities plan today to search a 50-mile-by-30-mile area for the three bodies. But he said it is “very unlikely” they will be found.

“What a wonderful couple they were,” said Catherine Sleavin. “What beautiful children. What a thing.”


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