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Up Close: Babs and Robert Powell
The celebrity couple discusses why they're leaving London to race -- against each other -- in the Challenge.
Quokka Sports visits the Powells in their bucolic Highgate home to ask Babs her feelings on being a crew volunteer on Team Carnegie for the 30,000-mile voyage -- and to ask Robert about his decision to be a legger for Team Logica on Leg 4.

Quokka: How did you first become interested in being involved in this race?

Babs: The first person I actually met was Sean Blowers who did half of the last race. Sean is an actor off “London’s Burning,” a television series. He had just taken himself out of the series to go to into training. We met at a charity event and I asked what he was up to, and he said he was doing the BT Global Challenge [1996/97], and I said “Oh, what’s that?" He explained, and I thought “My god, that sounds exciting.” Cut to a few months later, I followed it in the press with interest, and every now and then he’d throw out an article.

And then I met Lucy Fleming, and we’re both actors. Lucy had just come back from having completed the South African to Boston leg. She was going to do the whole race but because of a family bereavement she had to pull out and just do one leg. In fact, I’ve got all her equipment, she lent it all to me. Her foulies, her thermals, her silks, all her kit except for the sleeping bag which I got from my daughter.

Lucy said it was the most amazing experience, she said you really have to go for this. And then a few months after that, at a SPARKS [Sport Aiding Medical Research for Kids] dinner of which Robert was then vice president, he was sitting with Prince Michael of Kent and he was on the same boat as Humphrey Walters [co-author of “Global Challenge: Leadership Lessons from The World’s Toughest Yacht Race”], in fact they shared bunks. I’ve met Prince Michael and we were talking about sailing and I said did he know anything about this race, and he said he’d taken part in it and I should go for it. He said, call me and gave me his phone number.

Anyway a few days after that a friend of Lords Taverners, Robert Brooke, who is a trustee of the charity. We met him at another event and I was asking what he was up to and he said well “I’m going to take early retirement and next year, I’m doing the BT!” And I thought, “That’s four people in the space of a year!”

Quokka: Was it fate?

Babs: I wondered whether it was! And it just sort of captured my imagination and I said, “What do I have to do?’ and he said, “Just phone up.” So next morning I picked up the phone, and enrolled and then I didn’t hear anything for another … Oh, eight, nine months went by. They told me I was on a reserve list, and that I would just have to wait. Would I be prepared to have a suitcase packed and to go at a moment’s notice, to which I said yes.

The next thing was I got a letter at the beginning of August last year to ask if I was still interested in a leg; if so, was I prepared to go for an interview. I had a long chat with Robert about it, he said why don’t you just go for a leg. The whole thing is an enormous commitment. Then I decided perhaps it’s a bit insane, the circumstances have changed, and it’s probably best that I withdraw my interest. I sent my apologies. And I left this lying around, and Robert picked it up, and he said, “Look, if you really want to do this, go for it.”

Quokka: Did you really feel like that? Did you [Babs] think you should withdraw?

Robert: Well, I disapproved.

Babs: And I couldn’t do it without Robert’s support, and the family’s support.

Robert: I disapproved, I thought it was insane.

Quokka: And now you’re going too!

Robert: Yeah, absolutely, I think I’m actually going to have various quotes I made -- even at the boat show I made them -- thrown back in my face. I still think it’s crackers, to be honest. But the last thing I wanted Babs to do was regret not having done it. That would almost be worse than going through the, I dunno, the anxiety of having her do it. So I persuaded her to re-apply which she did.

Babs: The next thing was I was sent for an interview with Simon Walker [managing director of The Challenge Business]. I met Simon at the Directors’ Guild in Pall Mall and had the interview, which went on for about an hour. It would have gone on, I think, but I had to say, “I’m awfully sorry but I’m getting a bit nervous about traffic wardens.” And he said, “Oh, well we’ll be in touch.” The next thing I got was a letter congratulating me on getting a place…

Robert: Saying, “Give us your money!”

Quokka: Babs, you never seemed to have any doubt that you would do this race.

Robert: [To Babs] That’s how you live, I have the greatest respect, how you conduct your life. This is how she does everything. She ran the London Marathon … never having run further than 20 yards in her life.

Babs: That’s true [laughter]. I got two girlfriends, we ran the London Marathon in six hours.

Robert: They ran the marathon in six hours. Longer than anybody else. Because, they left, crawled into a pub for a glass of water and have a pee and Babs left her camera in the pub. But only discovered this after she had run a half mile towards the finishing line. So she ran the half mile back and the half mile again … so she ran a mile longer than anybody else.

Robert: Just to make sure…just to make sure she’s run the full monty.

Babs: I had to go get my camera; couldn’t leave it.

Robert: So that, I’m afraid…that is the person I had to live with for 25 years. Willful.

Quokka: Robert, how did you go from being such an opponent to the race -- to saying to Babs, “Okay, I will support you” -- to all of sudden, deciding to also do the race?

Robert: I just got a fax right out of the blue from Logica’s [BT Global Challenge Project Manager] Penny Green saying she spotted me at the boat show saying she had seen me there and realized Babs was sailing and she thought is was a great idea to let me compete against my wife. And I remember thinking, “Shit!” Because the moment I’d been asked I knew that I couldn’t say no.

Quokka: Why?

Robert: Well… if you’re going to lose your wife for 10 months she’s not going to come back the same person as the one that left. It would be useful if I found out just exactly what kind of things she’d been through so that I wouldn’t be sitting there without any knowledge of what had been entailed. The leg I’m doing maybe short but it’s a lumpy leg. At least I’ll get some impression of what she’s been through the other weeks.

Quokka: How do you balance your work with doing a leg?

Robert: You can organize your life in such a way. I’ve been asked to do a play next year and we start rehearsing in February and I said, “No I can’t do it.” “Oh why?” “Well, it’s personal, but I can’t do it.” And they said “when are you available?” And I said “I’m available the first Monday in March.” So I’ve worked it out.

That gives me a week in Sydney. Four days to get over the jetlag when I get home. And to get over whatever other lag I have when I get home [laughter]. Have my limbs put back and the prosthetics done. I looked at the pictures, I looked at the bloody video of this race and I thought we are totally insane why anybody should subject themselves…

Quokka: What was your thought when Robert announced that he too was going to do the race?

Babs: I thought terrific, because of the romance of Robert on the quayside as the boats come in. We are celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary on August 29.

Robert: Being on the quayside of course is a romantic idea but its slightly impractical because one never knows when you‘ll actually be in. Within three days or so.

Quokka: What are your plans after the race?

Babs: There is a sail that takes place in the Nordic coast up to the Arctic Circle. Other than that, I’ve been invited to do a parachute jump. I’m also thinking, “Where can you go if you’ve just completed one of the toughest yacht races ever.” More people have been into space than have done this race. Then I was thinking, the one thing you see from space on earth, that really stands out, is the China Wall. I recently met a woman who had just come back from doing a trek of the China Wall in aid of the British Heart Foundation and she said it was an amazing experience. I’m planning to do that.

Robert: The only thing my wife has not said is “spend some time with my family.” [laughter]

Babs: Well that just goes without saying after 25 years of marriage [more laughter].

Quokka Sports, 27th July 2000