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I recently discovered the 2009 nonfiction book Ten Degrees of Reckoning: The True Story of a Family's Love and the Will to Survive by Hester Rumberg while searching for books with 'ten' in the title for my write-off that celebrates my tenth anniversary on this site. Now that I've been so captivated by it, and sometimes awash in tears, I can assure you that I would've read it even if it hadn't had the right title. Rumberg was entrusted with Judith Sleavin's remarkable story of courage, endurance and love of life not because she was an experienced writer, but because she had been friends with the Sleavins for many years. Even the Sleavin's daughter's loving godmother. Her book, so deftly balanced with the tragedy of Sleavin losing her family at sea and the inspiration Judith has been, is one of those books I'll never forget.
The unlighted, undetectable ship made no effort whatsoever to prevent collision with the Sleavin's 47-foot yacht in the wee hours of November 24, 1995, except to inextricably, in a panic, turn ten degrees right into them at the last moment. There was no negligence on Judy's part as Rumberg explains. She had left the cockpit only a handful of minutes earlier and was already on her way back upstairs. Mike and Judy Sleavin were very responsible sailors and had been in no accidents at all since they began cruising together about a decade earlier, then for the last three years had been on their dream trip to New Zealand with their young children Ben and Annie. Rumberg takes some chapters to describe this joyous trip that bonded the family so much while touring exotic lands and making new friends before relating the gruesome events that happened after the disastrous collision and the unbelievable abandonment by those responsible. For a short time in the beginning I wondered if Ten Degrees of Reckoning might be better enjoyed by other sailors, but realized that Rumberg wished to establish how precautious and capable the Sleavins were.
After experiencing the greatest trauma possible for a mother, wife and proud cruiser, Judith Sleavin alone remained to struggle for a total of forty-four hours in a precarious dinghy that was their only recourse after the well-stocked lifeboat fled the scene. She couldn't walk as her legs were numb and because of injuries, but through gritty determination she succeeded in calling attention to herself after many more thirsty, miserable hours. The helicopter plot, a Christian, felt sure he witnessed two figures near her that must have been her guardian angels. Sleavin doesn't seem to be connected with a church and never mentions to Rumberg that she prayed or thought of biblical verses, but did confirm that she felt more connected to God because of her experience that has included visits or the voices of her loved ones waiting for her in heaven.
Much of the latter part of this slender book concerns the protracted investigation into the identity of the ship (and their culpability) and Judy's battle with simply getting out of bed and living without her family while pursuing justice that could only in the end be sought by her. It's quite a testament to the strength of the human spirit that she has been able to endure so much in spite of her agonizing mental impairments and post traumatic stress disorder. As Rumberg points out, Judy had always been one to live in the present, to face challenges head-on and see them through. It wasn't revenge she wanted, but justice and an apology. She also wanted to create a foundation to promote better maritime safety and she has, but she didn't get everything she wanted. Especially not Mike, nine-year-old Ben and seven-year-old Annie. Her husband's best friend who she clung to for a while after the ordeal wasn't as strong. He died of a broken heart, it would seem, on the tenth anniversary of the collision.
Much of the world, as well as Sleavin's many friends and relatives, have embraced this wonderful woman who has never considered living her life as a victim. She turned down all requests to sensationalize her story by the media and finally decided it was time for it to be told by her willing and, it turns out, most capable friend. It was time because Judy will now be remembered for more than her gutsy heroics as if she'd been in a battle between good and evil and instead more for her commitment to make every day count as she finds pleasure in being creative (glass beading, quilting), tutoring children and physically exploring the beauty of New Zealand, her family's spiritual home, where she has become a dear citizen.
Ten Degrees of Reckoning also related Rumberg's experience with writing the book and being on the Sleavin Family Foundation, as well as informing me about maritime laws and one very important law from 1920 called the Death on the High Seas Act, which only in 2000 was updated long after she found settlement and it still needs more updating for people like Sleavin. Reading this certainly makes me less eager to cruise around the sea, but more than that it encouraged me to passionately live my life in the moment as Sleavin has.
Two black-n-white photos of the family appear at story's end, along with a lovely poem by Judy. I can't think of a better ending to a riveting, inspiring book rather perfect for the holidays, don't ya think?
This is another entry in my Peregrine Ten write-off. To view more entries or learn how to join, please check out my profile. Thanks!