Ten Degrees: A Survivor's Story

Another theme that interests me is tales of survival.

What motivates a human being, faced with overwhelming odds, to continue fighting for his/her life or the lives of others?

Here is one answer to that question.

In 1993, Michael and Judith Sleavin, originally from Tacoma, Washington, along with their two young children, set sail on a dream trip around the world. The family voyage was expected to take five years aboard their 47-foot boat, the Melinda Lee.

Three years into their journey tragedy struck.

On November 24, 1995 at 2 am, a large South Korean cargo ship loaded with timber and steel, altered its course without warning and crushed the Sleavin’s boat near the coast of New Zealand.

In a few brief moments, the family’s vessel sunk into the darkness-—carrying their nine-year old son Ben to his death.

The mother, Judith, received a near fatal head injury and lost feeling in her body from the waist down. Father Michael was able to begin inflating a small dinghy, and help Judith and seven-year old daughter Annie aboard before the icy ocean water enveloped them.

The panicked family yelled at the South Korean vessel for help, but, reportedly, instead of assisting the injured three, the large commercial vessel quickly sailed from the scene.

It was thought that the crew was afraid of the consequences of the collision, and as a result, they decided not to notify anyone.

Hours later, the group struggled to stay afloat in the partially inflated raft. Several times, the trio was flipped into the water, but each instance, Michael was able to regroup everyone at the craft.

Finally, a rogue wave crashed into the family, knocking their little Annie away from the boat. Michael jumped into the rough ocean in an effort to save his daughter, but both drowned.

Judith’s inspirational tale of 44 hours of survival—-alone in a sinking raft, suffering hypothermia, with limited mobility and a brain injury—-is told in a book released in 2009 entitled Ten Degrees of Reckoning.

The author is a Sleavin family friend named Hester Rumberg.

Here is an excerpt from an interview with Ms. Rumberg by Michelle Burford:

Between the time when Judith's boat was hit and the day that she was rescued, what was her lowest moment?

The lowest moment was when she finally saw her daughter, Annie, die. Most people would try to wipe these things from memory, but Judy wanted to be able to tell people what happened. She chose to never abandon her family in memory after the ship had abandoned them.

So the whole time she was on the dinghy, she repeated the sequence of events in minute detail…

Each of us has the potential to survive chaotic life-threatening events.

Outside of luck (or something else, if you are a person of Faith), finding a motivator to develop the proper “I will win” mindset is essential in an effort to cheat death.*

In this instance, Judith’s focus was to tell others of her children and not to let her family’s death remain a mystery.

Though I have never faced adversity at this level, I can admire and draw strength from the courage displayed by Judith Sleavin.

One final note.

After reading the part about Michael jumping into the water to rescue his daughter, Annie, after she had fallen from the dinghy for the final time, a haunting image of the father swimming to her and then both of them realizing that the current was too strong for them to ever return to the raft crept into my mind.

I just can’t shake it.


Images and Credit: Additional photos of the family and their boat are available here and the picture above was from here.

*Note: Based on a reader comment, I revised this sentence after initial publication--thanks for the insight Chuck.


Pia said...

that is so traumatic. judith is a strong woman to be able to relive that moment each time she tells her story. wow!

chuckmullis said...

Sometimes human will and determination is not enough. So sad about the dad and his children. How horrible for the mother to have to witness it all. I don't know if I would have the desire to survive after this happening. It is a chilling thought!

My Husband's Watching TV... said...

I don't know how she did it, the thought of losing your entire family right in front of your eyes...what happened to the S. Korean vessel?

diaryfromscotland said...

Deeply emotive reading, the tragic events of what should have been a wonderful adventure.

Judith is to be commended for her courageous stance in reliving the tragedy.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
This is a terrible story and a brave one. i can't even add up how many traumas that was. The urge to give up must have been strong.

I notice in google search that she has fought not just for justice for herself, but for a change in international maritime law that would help protect others in smaller craft. And that she now makes jewelry in New Zealand.

So a will to live, and a will to give.

As always, Slamdunk, thank you for the inspiration.

Ann T.

 ALH said...

What a heart wrenching story. It pained me to have the images created popping into my head. I feel for Judith and her situation and also the need to share the story of her family's tragedy and of her unlikely survival. Thanks for posting this, it really makes you thankful for what you have.

Also, thanks for commenting on my recent post! The piece was about that feeling where one has just one, last thing to say before being able to move on. And the recipient is 'no one anymore' and will thus probably never see it, but that's ok. It was more for me. :)

Erin said...

It is amazing what the human body and mind can endure.

torn blazer said...

wow what a story

Dan said...

Traumatic - and the reason this inland lubber stays many miles from water deeper that 6 inches.

People fight against all odds to survive the most painful and dire things - just ask any emergency room physician. Of course, if we didn't have a strong drive to survive, we probably wouldn't still exist as a species.

A sad but inspiring story.

Rhiannon Banda-Scott said...

ok I am just out the door BUT I must finish reading this when I return...I am intrigued!! :)

terri said...

I can't imagine finding such strength. I'm almost positive, were I in the same situation, I would want to lay down and die after having watched my family slip away so tragically. What an amazing woman.

Slamdunk said...

Thanks for your comments all.

@ My Husband's..: I have not read the book and did not find a comprehensive answer to your question. From reading some of the reviews, the book contains quite a bit of information on the aftermath of the crash including the investigation and court proceedings.

From what I did find, it looks like at least one of the crew members of the S. Korean vessel was indicted, but apparently the country's officials were not very cooperative and it was doubtful that anyone would receive punishment if they were convicted.

@ Ann T.: Thanks for the additional information on Judith.

@ALH: Ok, glad that you are not dealing with that today then.

Javajune said...

I can't imagine surviving an ordeal like that. I don't know if I would have the strength to go on without my family. This is so sad! We only think of these things happening in the movies. It must be so surreal to her.

Luisa Doraz said...

I am proud of how she pulled her strength forward and survived.A strong message.

Tasneem R said...

I'm speechless after reading the pitiful story about the family .The way Judith lost his husband and kids is depressing . Above all the thing which is even more heart touching is her strength which kept her up for 44 hrs in the condition in which she was mentally and physically shattered.

How motivated are you?
The test finds out how inspired you really are.

Rhiannon Banda-Scott said...

Wow. Ok just read it all. I teared up a bit. I def need to get this boat. That just so so sad. You have everything and then it seems like nothing. Wow...

traceepersiko said...

I get hooked on survival stories as well. I frequently watch the show "I Survived."

Great story. Makes me grateful for life as well as one who always swims out to save me.

Thank you for the post!

Suzan Bobette said...

I read this book a while ago. Nothing happened to the Korean boat. They paid a small fine amounting to what the husband might have made in wages for the rest of his life. Nothing for the kids. That is maritime law. I don't know if she was able to change it later.
I found it a gut wrenching book. I wanted more hope and healing. The only good point was the people of New Zealand who took her in and took care of her for at least a year for free. Other than that I wish I wouldn't have read it.