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Three American Family Members Die in Freak Yachting Accident

November 27, 1995

WHANGAREI, New Zealand (AP) _ It was Judith and Michael Sleavin’s lifelong goal, planned since their wedding: give up daily life on land and sail around the world in their own boat with their children.

The California family of four made it only partway.

Today, Judith Ann Sleavin is in a New Zealand hospital with cuts and two cracked vertebrae after three days adrift on a raft. Her husband and their children are presumed drowned after a cargo ship struck their 46-foot yacht and sailed away.

Mrs. Sleavin, 43, was found washed up on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island on Sunday. Her 42-year-old husband, 9-year-old son Benjamin Thomas and 7-year-old daughter Anna Rose were lost at sea.

Mrs. Sleavin told rescuers that her family’s boat, the Melinda Lee, was hit about 30 nautical miles northeast of Cape Brett about 2 a.m. Friday.

The couple _ he a salesman, she a civil engineer _ was from Hermosa Beach, Calif., but had been away from the United States cruising on their yacht with their children since early 1993. The family expected to be gone for about five years, the Los Angeles Times reported in today’s editions.

``This was their dream _ to sail around the world with their children,″ Richard Lull of Hermosa Beach, a family friend, told the Times.

Planes set out Sunday looking for the U.S.-registered Melinda Lee, overdue on a voyage from Tonga, after Mrs. Sleavin was found at Deep Water Cove, near the Bay of Islands tourist area.

The first rescuers to reach Mrs. Sleavin, workers from the Northland tourism company Fullers, said she was hysterical.

Fullers Northland joint managing director Roger Dould described the ordeal as ``an offshore yachtie’s worst nightmare come true.″

Police said Mrs. Sleavin told them she was standing the night watch _ part of the routine on a yacht on the open seas _ when a large ship appeared, bore down and tore the yacht apart.

Benjamin went down with the boat, Mrs. Sleavin told rescuers. She said she, her husband and her daughter made it into the inflatable raft.

But heavy winds and high seas dogged them through the night.

``Conditions must have been pretty appalling, as all three were from time to time swept by heavy seas off the damaged inflatable,″ Dould said. ``Her husband had gone into the water several times when the daughter was swept overboard, and finally he had been swept away himself.

``It sounded as if he had been exhausted and had been unable to clamber back. Then she said her daughter had been swept away, and this time she had been unable to save her.″

Rescue authorities said they would not launch further searches for the victims unless they get more information. The Maritime Safety Authority said it would check shipping movements to see what ship hit the Sleavins’.

Jonnie Fritz, a neighbor of the Sleavins in Santa Clarita, Calif., recalled asking Mrs. Sleavin if she was prepared to take small children on such a trip.

``She told me that they were going to be wearing life preservers and they would be all right,″ Fritz told the Times.

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