The voyage of a lifetime
When the Skelchers set off on a journey of “indeterminate destination” it became the voyage of a lifetime. They shared their incredible story with The Good Life.
The date 4 November 2021 marked the day, 36 years earlier, when JoJo and Robin Skelcher sailed into Wollongong Harbour to start their new life in Australia. It also marked the end of an adventure which took them around the world one-and-a-half times.
It all started on 3 August 1980, when the couple left England on their 37- foot yacht Tucantu.
“The plan was to sail westward on a voyage of an indeterminate destination,” explains Robin. “I was hoping to get as far as Australia because my twin sister lived here.”
JoJo met Robin, an architect, a year before they set sail and says she grabbed the opportunity for an adventure with the person she had fallen in love with.
Robin lived on the boat for just over a year and went to night school at Redruth to learn navigation. “I did a few cross-channel [English Channel] trips to get to know the ins and outs of sailing and navigation,” he says.
JoJo had never been on a yacht before she met Robin. “Sailing is pretty easy,” she says with a smile.
Both Robin and JoJo had children from previous relationships who had mixed feelings about the trip.
“At first they didn’t think it was a very good idea but by the time we got back from Australia they thought it was terrific,” says Robin. “JoJo’s sister said ‘you are going to go and sail to Australia and no-one has ever come back from there’.”
They had a general plan for the trip. “We were going to go south to the Canary Islands, and then across to the Caribbean and then eventually to the Panama Canal,” explains Robin. Then across the Pacific Ocean to Australia. Also on board was the ship’s cat – a six-week-old kitten called Pussy No 2, which also had its own passport.
Their longest stint on the boat was 39 days at sea. “It was from Panama City to the Marquesas Islands and was 4300 nautical miles,” says Robin. “It was pretty easy sailing and the weather was warm.”
As adventurous as sailing around the world sounds, there were still chores to do. “We still had to do the washing, cooking and the cleaning,” says JoJo.
Robin explains that freshwater was an extremely valuable commodity and had to be used carefully. “We got very good at water conservation.”
They also had very little technology on board compared to today’s yachts. “We had a VHF radio, with a maximum range of 30 miles, but we had a short-wave receiver so we could always get accurate time and the weather forecast,” explains Robin.
They kept in contact with their family and friends through letter writing. “If you knew where you were going to sail for you could have poste restante, where a post office would receive mail addressed to your yacht,” says Robin. “We had plenty of time to write letters and we wrote 600 letters during the trip,” says JoJo. “And we got plenty of letters back.”
After 14 months of sailing they arrived in Wollongong Harbour and Australia won them over, so they decided to stay for good. But to do that they needed to travel back to England to arrange their visas and pack up their lives. “On our first trip we stayed for nine months, it took 14 months to get back (via South Africa and the Indian Ocean) to England, and the return trip [to Australia] took 14 months,” says Robin. “We intended to sell the boat once we got back to England and fly out here to settle. We made a half-hearted attempt to sell the boat but no-one was interested, so we sailed it back. We did 47,000 nautical miles altogether.”
One of their most frightening times on the boat was when they hit some nasty weather crossing the Bay of Biscay. “It was the second time we left England. A very nasty storm blew up and we were very, very scared, to say the least,” says Robin. JoJo describes it as “terrifying”. “We knew it was coming, we had radio warning it was coming, we did what we knew was the right thing and that was to get as far off shore as you can,” says Robin. “We were 90 miles off shore, and other yachts who didn’t do that, they were lost.”
After moving to Australia they got a mooring on Wollongong Harbour for the boat and set up an architectural practice in a little cottage in Wollongong – they were married in the cottage’s backyard and have been married for more than 28 years now.
The pair didn’t find it too hard to settle back into normal life again after their travels. “We had to knuckle down and do some serious work,” says Robin. “And get some money,” says JoJo.
After retiring from the architect’s practice, they did more sailing but Robin contracted pneumonia and was extremely unwell. “He almost died – it was very frightening – which prompted us to look to the future,” says JoJo. “So we moved into IRT Links Seaside 13 years ago and sold Tucantu two years later.”
When reflecting on that incredible time in their lives, Robin says sailing around the world is just a matter of standing still and letting the world go around underneath you.