Former women’s rower Lesley Milne remembers the day she and some other longtime crewmates helped Lynette ‘Skelo’ Skelton, move into her new home after returning to Auckland from Sydney in 2014.
If Lynette had a big personality, it was no match for the size of the shipping container that appeared on this quiet suburban street in Meadowbank.
“We were all just a bit gob-smacked,” says Milne. “Honestly, the stuff she had was unbelievable. Of course, it had her single scull (the ‘Skelo’) in it, and we had to carry all this furniture and everything into her house, which was quite a small place really, erg as well, in the middle of the lounge floor, all the windows covered up.”
And then there was the ‘Esky’ she went to lift inside.
“Well, I thought this was going to be an easy job, you know. Chilly bin under one arm, other things under the other arm. But I very quickly found out that I needed more than one hand to pick it up because it was chock-full of medals. I remember trying to stagger up the driveway with it.”
There were more than 400 of them. You might say it was Skelton’s modern-day treasure chest from a life lived gathering the spoils of rowing around the world.
Lynette Skelton passed away last month at her aged-care facility in Remuera, Auckland.
Sheryl Wells (nee Gavin) was one of Skelton’s best friends and cared for her in her final years as that big personality was slowly overshadowed by dementia.
For now, the medals are bundled in a blue plastic crate at Wells’ home. So many variations of gold, silver and bronze snarled together by ribbons of every rowing affiliation under the sun. There’s intrigue in trying to untangle just where Skelton’s nomadic rowing life took her.
There’s no mystery as to where she took women’s rowing in the early 1960s.
Skelton joined the Auckland University Women’s Rowing Club as an 18-year-old in 1959. Apart from North Shore RC (remembering the Harbour Bridge didn’t open until 1959), it was the only club in Auckland that women rowers could join at the time; everywhere else the door was firmly slammed shut.
As Wells once wrote: “For a young woman who had been educated at Diocesan School for Girls, where you were led to believe women could achieve and do anything, it did not go down well at all.”
Little did anyone know a whirlwind of change for women’s sport had just stormed the building.
Wells first encountered that force when Skelton started work with her as a teller at the National Bank in Jean Batten Place in central Auckland in 1962.
It didn’t take long for Skelton to convince her new colleague to take up the sport and they became known as the ‘National Bank Four,’ rowing under the flag of Auckland University, and featuring on the cover of the company’s magazine in May 1963.
If Skelton was the centre of this small universe of University women’s club rowers, her mum and dad’s home in Puriri Ave, Greenlane, was the vortex.
“If the parents were away,” says Wells, “we would all stay there because it would be easier to get to rowing because Lynette used to drive us in her mother’s car, with her shower cap on her head, turning and talking to us. There’d be five of us in there. She was a terrible driver. The worst. But we always got there.”
The Skeltons were well-known entertainers, and they had an attraction at home like no other, hidden behind a large mirror.
“It was in the lounge,” says Wells. “All of a sudden, during the night, the mirror would be lifted up and there was a full bar behind it, like a little room. It had everything in it… you got into it from a door under the stairs.”
It was the party trick that went like this:
“Open up the bar.”
“Where is the bar?”
“Oh, I’ll just polish this mirror a bit.”
Open Sesame. Up went the mirror and out came the bar.
Milne can still remember the rows out of the Auckland University Women’s boatshed in Panmure, down the Tamaki River and out into the harbour around to St Heliers where they would park up on the beach for an hour or two and then row back.
Skelton was a serious trainer and an even tougher coach. Like everything in life, she went full throttle.
When first asked about her memories of Skelton almost 60 years on, former New Zealand rower Hilary Craies, in her very quick-witted way, has a one-word answer. “Unprintable.” In a good way.
Craies started rowing in 1965.
“The rowing association didn’t want to know us, oh God no,” she says.
She remembers having to sneak into the West End Rowing Club with her crewmates “under the cover of darkness” to take a boat out just to get a row because women weren’t allowed.
You did what you had to do.
And then the landmark moment that changed the sport, as syndicated in various newspapers around the country:
“A petite young Auckland woman is being described as the second Mrs. Pankhurst. She is preoccupied with a crusade to win recognition for her sex in a sport that for years in New Zealand has been virtually a male preserve. The sport is rowing and the woman is Miss Lyn Skelton, president of the newly-formed New Zealand Women’s Rowing Association (NZWRA).”
Boom! Things began to happen.
With the encouragement of renowned coach Eric Craies, Cyril Hilliard, Sir Don Rowlands, Fred Strachan and other supportive men (outliers at the time), a New Zealand Women’s Four toured Australia in 1966, winning the Inter-State Championship in Adelaide with Skelton in stroke seat.
There were also races in Sydney and Melbourne, during what Craies remembers was a two-week tour that was entirely self-funded and where the obstacles they’d experienced in New Zealand weren’t quite as obvious. But still there.
“When we rowed in Melbourne, we had to borrow a boat from Commercial or Banks club, so they got one down from the rafters and we had to re-canvas it and clean it all because it was full of birds’ nests and that was what we had to row in.”
No way were women going to be rowing the good boats.
Skelton’s influence was painted all over 1967 as well. The newly-minted NZWRA convinced the NZARA to include for the first time a women’s race at the National Championships.
Milne was in that first winning boat, an Auckland University Women’s coxed four.
This weekend New Zealand rowing is celebrating its extraordinary Olympic and world championship success over the past 20 years with a Legends dinner. For some of these athletes, their first significant medals came as part of a Skelton Cup winning crew.
So, to all those medals Lynette Skelton won herself. Nearly all of them were won after Lynette moved to Australia in 1971. She rowed and coached at 3 main clubs in her 43 years across the Tasman – Mosman, Balmain and Sydney.
They revered her at Balmain, not just at the club where she was a major force on and off the water, but throughout the community.
Mark Conway is a cousin of Skelton’s. He represented New Zealand in the lightweight four at the 1994 World Championships and the single sculls the next year.
He visited Skelton in Sydney regularly and has a memory as vivid as Lynette’s life was colourful.
There was the termite-ridden bar that collapsed at Skelton’s home in Seaforth while she was hosting some of the 1972 New Zealand Olympic Men’s Eight during the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Or the day in 2009 he went with Skelton to one her friend’s places to watch the NRL grand final and who should he end up sitting next to on the couch? Dawn Fraser – arguably Australia’s greatest female athlete of the 20th century. It’s hard to know which is more famous in Balmain – the seaside outdoor pool she learned to swim in and later bore her name, or the Riverside Hotel she was owner and publican of. She and Skelo were solid acquaintances.
And what about Skelo’s Snack Shack? The original food cart Lynette set up down by the harbour in the early 1980s.
Conway says she was up at 3am every morning to do all the baking in her kitchen at home before driving down to the harbourside for a 7am opening.
“When did she sleep?” seems the obvious question.
You can see Conway’s fatigue at the mere memory of keeping up with his cousin.
He visited her when she was living part of the year in a small room at the Weybridge Rowing Club in London. It was damp and mouldy and Lynette picked up a lung infection. But she would go anywhere for the chance to row.
Nearly every year she was off on a trip overseas to row, World Masters regattas in Scotland 2005, Croatia 2007, Melbourne 2002, Austria 2009, her row down the length of the Danube – the second-longest river in Europe and many, many more.
Lynette Skelton. Whirlwind. Followed by a tailwind.
Just over a week ago, North Shore Rowing Club hosted its annual Bennett Shield regatta followed by the Eric Verdonk Memorial regatta on the Sunday. Both were at Lake Pupuke in Auckland.
There were almost 200 women’s and girls’ crews entered on that Saturday.
Craies remembers the Bennett Shield in 1965, when as a novice she and 15 other women rowers raced each other at a club regatta in eights for the first time. ‘Skelo’ was stroking on that groundbreaking day.
Then at the EV regatta, just as Skelo’s old mates were preparing for her memorial at West End Rowing Club, Wentworth College student Milan Teinakore was lining up in a yellow single scull with a familiar name.
You might have to squint to see it on the bow.
Look whose boat is still guiding the way for women’s rowing.