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Authors: Hester Rumberg

Ten Degrees of Reckoning

BOOK: Ten Degrees of Reckoning
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Ten Degrees of Reckoning

Penguin Group USA

Table of Contents

Copyright Page




One - November 24, 1995

Two - Ten-Year Plan

Three - Beyond Armchair Cruising

Four - Bonjour de Guadeloupe

Five - The Littlest Captain

Six - Abandoned by Grace

Seven - Rules of the Road

Eight - Grave Impact

Nine - Obligations and Procedures

Ten - Oceans of Sorrow

Eleven - Searching for Melinda Lee

Twelve - The Moan of Condolences

Thirteen - The Sailboat

Fourteen - Willing to Live

Fifteen - Realities

Sixteen - The Burden of Memory

Seventeen - Gathering the Evidence

Eighteen - The Investigation

Nineteen - Aotearoa

Twenty - Trials and Mediations

Twenty-one - Reflections

Twenty-Two - Ten Degrees of Reckoning



About The Author



Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publishers Since 1838
a member of the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA • Penguin
Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division
of Pearson Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)
Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division
of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre,
Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale,
North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books
(South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England


Copyright © 2007 by Hester Rumberg


Maps by Margaret Davidson, courtesy Hester Rumberg
Letter pages 125-127 © the Polley Family
Photograph page 247 © Judith Sleavin
Photograph page 249 © Hester Rumberg


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data


Rumberg, Hester.
Ten degrees of reckoning : the true story of a family’s love and the will to survive /
Hester Rumberg.—1st American ed.
p. cm.

eISBN : 978-1-101-01614-5

1. Sleavin, Judith. 2. Sleavin, Judith—Family. 3.
Melinda Lee
4. Shipwreck victims—United States—Biography. 5. Shipwreck victims—New Zealand—
Biography. 6. Survival after airplane accidents, shipwrecks, etc.—New Zealand.
7. Shipwrecks—New Zealand. 8. Boating accidents—New Zealand. 9.
Pan Grace
(Cargo ship). 10. Cargo ships—Korea (South). I. Sleavin, Judith. II. Title.




While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet
addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for
errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over
and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

For the crew of the
Melinda Lee,
spirited adventurers all

A voice said in my sleep: “Do not delay:

Do not delay; the golden moments fly!”

The Masque of Pandora (1875)




IT WILL SOON BE THIRTEEN YEARS SINCE MY FAMILY disappeared with the downing of our boat, the
Melinda Lee.
I knew the story needed to be told, but I couldn’t do it, and it took me all these years before I was ready to entreat my trusted friend with the task of writing this book.

In 1993 my husband and I, along with our son and daughter, set out to live our dream—to sail around the world. For almost three years we did exactly that. But in 1995 my family and I were in a devastating collision that took away from me everything in the world I held dear. My back was broken and my skull was fractured, with some irreversible brain damage—but none of that compared with the loss of my family.

There were many times when I thought I, too, was going to die. What kept me alive was the love of my family and the longing to tell our story.

Everything you will read is true, and while there are terrible portions, as in life, there is also joy and love, adventure and resilience. When tragedy struck, the depth of the despair was almost exactly the inverse of the incredible height of happiness I had always experienced being with Michael, Ben, and Annie.

Throughout the years, filmmakers, journalists, and authors have all approached me with requests to tell my tale. I repeatedly heard the word “inspirational” attached to it and to me, and I hoped someday the telling might even save lives. But I wasn’t ready, until now.




I chose Hester Rumberg to tell our story. It was important to me that she had been an experienced oceangoing sailor like me, that she had sailed on our boat, and that she has been a treasured part of our extended family. I respected her professional accomplishments in her field as a radiologist, and then as my spokesperson in the maritime community. But most important, I could express my feelings and thoughts to her when I couldn’t tell anyone else, and she always understood. She had the empathy, love, and patience to listen, and the skill, intelligence, and knowledge to tell the story. A talented writer and a cherished friend, Hester has turned untellable circumstances into a powerful and gripping story. She captured my most elusive feelings and put them into words. She pieced together my painful memories and wove them into an accurate picture. She explored the meanings behind the facts without losing the authenticity of the story. She has balanced a story of unfathomable layers with reflective insights, and has given even me a new understanding of some of its features.

Some parts of this story are still too big for me to comprehend, and some of my feelings are still too raw to articulate. When you read the book, you’ll know my trust was not misplaced when I chose Dr. Hester Rumberg as the author. If I could have written a book, this would be it, exactly.



—Judith Sleavin


November 24, 1995



THIS IS NOT MY STORY. IT IS A STORY EMBEDDED IN THE very fibers of my heart, and it has changed the direction of my life, but it is not my story. Oh, I’ve managed to insert myself into some of its chapters, but I am a long way from being one of the principal characters. They have been silenced by an enormous tragedy and its aftermath, and have selected me to give voice to a story that needs telling. I choose to begin the account on November 24, 1995, but really, that is when the story ends.

On November 23, 1995, all over the United States people were enjoying Thanksgiving with their families, in their homes. The Sleavin family celebrated in the cockpit of their sailboat, the
Melinda Lee,
sailing toward New Zealand. They were about seventy-five miles from its coast, and they expected to be there by the next morning. This might not have been a conventional Thanksgiving celebration, but they were not a conventional family. The Sleavins had been away from home for almost three years, and they planned to settle down somewhere in New Zealand for a while. The family, Mike and Judy and their children, Ben and Annie, were in great humor. The weather didn’t match the mood of the sailors, though; it was overcast and gloomy, the wind was increasing in strength, the waves were getting larger, and the whitecaps were spraying them with sea foam and salt water. The Sleavins didn’t mind. After thirty-three months at sea, they were experienced in the routines, the capriciousness of the weather, and the patience required in ocean passage-making. The Sleavins had crossed thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea in a forty-seven-foot sailboat, and after many remarkable adventures, they were approaching their destination.

At 8:45 that morning, they made their usual daily radio contact with other sailboats heading toward New Zealand’s North Island. Most voyaging boats worldwide like to make connections on ham and marine single sideband radio frequency networks. Belonging to a network of sailors gives the crew information about other vessels and conditions at sea, and decreases the sense of isolation. These nets also have a safety aspect. Vessels are expected to check in every day at an established time, and if they fail to do so, search-and-rescue efforts may be implemented. The Sleavins were part of a net facilitated by Annique, another sailor circumnavigating the world.


Morning Roll Call

0745 (GMT)

Good morning, Hole in the Net cruisers. It is now 0745 Greenwich Mean Time, and you are listening to your Net Control, Annique, on the sailing vessel RUQUCA. We check in daily at this time. I will call you in turn. If you have any communications for other boats on the net, please make arrangements to move off this frequency when you have connected. First, stand by for any emergency, medical, or priority traffic. Is there any emergency, medical, priority traffic? Come now . . . Nothing heard, so we will begin the roll call.


During a roll call, each boat gave its longitude and latitude, course and speed, weather conditions, barometer readings, and estimated distance to the respective harbor. The Sleavins reported they were heading to the Bay of Islands, where they would check in at Opua, the northernmost port of entry into New Zealand. At the end of
Melinda Lee
’s report, Judy alerted Annique that it was unlikely they would check in the next morning; they hoped to be dealing with customs and immigration. Annique wished them well and reported that the sailboat
was already in Opua and eagerly awaiting
Melinda Lee
’s arrival. Judy made arrangements to switch frequencies with
and signed off the net with “Safe travels to all.” 

It had been a gray and drizzly day, but nothing could mute the excitement of an imminent landfall. Annie, who had turned seven on October 2, desperately wanted a dog, and since her parents had decided to take a break from cruising, she was really looking forward to the fulfillment of her dream. She wondered if they had the same kind of puppies in New Zealand as they had in California. Her dad told Annie he knew for certain they would come across sheepdogs, trained to guard and herd flocks of sheep. Annie’s older brother, Ben, piped up, “Hey, let’s get some sheep and name one of them Baaahb.”

BOOK: Ten Degrees of Reckoning
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