​Clipper Race Supporters Club: Meet Sue and Phil Ball

23 July 2016

Sue Ball is a circumnavigator on PSP Logistics, and as if sailing round the world wasn’t a big enough challenge in itself she also took on the role of Team Coordinator before Race Start from London last August. While Sue has been taking care of organising the crew at sea, her husband Phil has led the shore support. Despite being apart for the majority of the time, they have turned the last eleven months into a shared adventure.

Here Sue and Phil share their story.

Firstly, congratulations on your first podium. How did it feel and did you ever believe you would get one?

After 11 months of trying to get on the podium, it was a fantastic feeling to come in second into Den Helder. It was the best feeling in the world.The last day was very nerve-wracking trying to hold onto our position for the final 10 nautical miles. Anything can happen on the final race, and we are better on the shorter races, although a lot of it came down to luck on the last race too, and other boats weren't so lucky.

Let’s start at the very beginning, how did you meet?

Sue: Phil and I met way back in 1977, when we were both on our first posting in the army. We were serving in Germany and first got together in a nightclub, where the local man eater had her eyes on a very young and naive Lance Corporal Ball.

Phil: I thought I was a full Corporal by then but Sue’s memory is usually better than mine.

Sue: I felt sorry for him and asked him to dance - he's never hit the dance floor so fast since, he hates dancing! We got married in 1980, so had our 36th anniversary in February of this year.

Phil: We spent a lot of time in the Corporal’s mess and put away some serious amount of alcohol in those early days. If only the crew could have seen her then, you’d have all been under the table especially on the Bacardi! We met as Sue has described, I was a very thankful young man. I hope the man eater doesn’t read this.

Sue: There have been quite a few ups and downs over the years, but we are still hanging in there - he is my best friend and I don't know where I would be without him. A long career in the army for both of us meant that we never got around to having children, but when I left the army I started a children's day nursery, so had up to 45 of other people's children to borrow, a much better way of doing it because you get to give them back at the end of the day!

Phil: I remember an early argument, one of a few, I was playing cards (three card brag) for more money than maybe I should have been. Sue was sat next to me and asked me if three 3’s was a good hand, everyone folded and I was left with nothing to show for the best hand in the game. Not sure what I said but it wouldn’t have been pleasant.

Sue, how did you go about telling Phil that you wanted to do the race?

Sue: I had no problems telling Phil that I was signing up for the race. Having had lots of separate postings whilst in the army we have both always been very used to doing our own thing, so it was nothing new. Besides which I am sure Phil would say he has never tried to tell me what I can and can't do - he knows I'm far too bolshie for that!

Phil: I don’t think she’s bolshie but very determined. To be honest I didn’t really have a clue what the race entailed. Sue told me over a coffee that she had decided to compete in the Clipper 2015-16 Race. This was some months before the 2013-14 race had started. To participate in the race, she underwent an operation on her neck to free a nerve that was trapped causing pain and restriction of used of her right arm. It was successful thank goodness otherwise I’ve no idea what she would have done.

Sue: Saying goodbye in London brought a mix of emotions - I think Phil was more emotional than me, because I had all the excitement of the race start and the distractions that bought. I also had a group of 16 friends and family who came to see me off, so I had to keep it together for them. To be honest the thought going through my mind was 'this is really happening. Not sure I meant it to get this far! Seemed a good idea at the time, but a bit late to stop now!' A bit like the thoughts on my wedding day actually!

Phil, you have become an honorary member of PSP Logistics because Sue has had you involved in all sorts of things to support the team ashore. Please tell us what you’ve been up to.

After Crew Allocation in Portsmouth where Skippers and crews were formally announced Sue volunteered to be the victualler. The next week I was sat having a cup of tea when the phone rang. It was Max. Listening to Sue’s replies I realised she had been asked to be the Team Coordinator. She was surprised but I don’t know why, I haven’t met too many better organisers than her. She had just told her employer and very good friend (Sue) that she was no longer available for work.

Almost every day from then she’d spend most of the day and night doing “Team Max” work. I cannot believe how long it took and how emotive it was just to sort the team song!!

She was obviously very busy so when we decided that we should have our own PSP Logistics spectator boat I decided to help out. I’m reasonably good at organising things too and had 99 people signed up within 48 hours so it wasn’t hard work. We finally upgraded to a bigger boat and had 125 people on the day. Our Team Sponsor was one of the latter ones to be announced so by the time we knew it was PSP Logistics, family and friends wanted some supporters’ kit it was way too late for any of the crew to take on so I sorted that. That wasn’t as easy as there were people all over the world but we sorted it eventually. I’ve met most of the crew now and a better bunch of people I’ve not met since leaving the Army.

Sue: Phil has been an absolute diamond with all the help he has given me and the team. While I am the Team Coordinator for my boat and he has been like the shore team coordinator. I send one email to him every week and he distributes it to all my family and friends, giving them a deadline for replies, then collates and sends the answers on to me. He has also passed on messages to other crew for me, for instance while we were crossing the Pacific I had to ask him to order some more dehydrated meat to be delivered in Seattle. He has got to know quite a few of the crew and their families and of course he's met a lot of them when he comes to stopovers.

Sue, what is it like to know that Phil is waiting for you to come into port?

Sue: It is really great having someone waiting for you when you get to port, it makes it much more emotional experience. That first hug on the dockside is one of 'I made it, I'm safe now' and it really rounds the race off. Of course there are also disadvantages with having supporters at stopovers - you feel guilty if you spend too much time with them and not helping prepare the boat for the next leg, and you feel guilty if you don't spend enough time with them.

Phil: It is nice to see the boats come in and even nicer to see the look on crew members faces when they see someone they weren’t expecting. Sue knows whose visiting where because the family and friends decided early where they would holiday and coincide with the boats arrival. It’s no use just going and expecting to spend days and days with Sue as it doesn’t work that way. Luckily with the exception of Qingdao Sue has someone visiting all the ports. Her good friends went to Australia and her eldest sister to Da Nang. A whole hoard of people arrived in Londonderry and it was my first visit there for 26 years. Beforehand we heard it was a good bash and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

Sue, Phil is obviously very supportive of your journey and that of the team, what does that mean to you when you have taken on such a huge challenge?
It means a lot to have Phil's support from afar. It is really nice to get news from home and to know that people are thinking about you and wishing you well. There is a flip side to that though - I sometimes feel really selfish because I know that me being out here generates a lot of worry and stress for loved ones back home.

What has been your race highlight so far together?

Phil: The South Africa stopover was special as I emigrated there as a very young child arriving by sea. It is a sight to behold with Table Mountain in the distance. For those who’ve never seen it from the sea you don’t know what you’re missing.

Sue: Our race highlight together so far has to be the Cape Town Stopover. Phil lived in South Africa with his family as a child and his sister is still there. We spent our honeymoon there and have visited quite a few times. I managed to get two full days away from the boat and we had a great time doing normal things together. Also, having so many friends and family visit in Londonderry was very special.

Being recognised by Stormhoek with the Social Spirit Award for our turtle rescue in the Pacific Ocean was another favourite memory.

What’s it like to be sharing this journey together?
Phil has been sharing my journey from the very beginning. He has taken an interest in everything from the kit I have bought, to my training and all the prep and now on the race. He planned his own year around the stopovers, going to Cape Town, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Seattle, New York and Derry-Londonderry, so he is having his own adventure really.

Phil, how have you found the last few months?

Phil: I spent from October to February travelling. I spent the first three months in South Africa. My sister lives there and I absolutely love the place. I have a few friend there too so it’s like home from home for me. I then did my first proper trip to south-east Asia and visited Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, the latter being my favourite. I’d arranged this long before Da Nang was revealed to be a host port so it was a lucky call.

I check the Race Viewer daily but not every hour like some people I know.

I coordinate the email that goes to Sue weekly from friends and family. I send it to eight people then they send it to other groups so it’s just a matter of copying and pasting the replies. Not difficult but at least Sue doesn’t end up with expensive bills when people try to sneak a photo in! We speak when she’s in port but because of the emails we haven’t that much to say!

What changes have you seen in yourselves and each other since the race almost eleven months ago?

Sue: I'm not sure if the race has changed Phil or not. He certainly seems to appreciate me more (not that he didn't before) and I know he misses me more than he thought he would because he told me. I hope the race has made me more tolerant - just about every appraisal I have had in my life has said 'Does not suffer fools gladly', well I've had to learn to do that on this race - there have been a few fools!! It's also strengthened my Christian faith - I've needed God's help on more than one occasion!

Phil: It’s not changed me much to be honest as it is Sue’s adventure. Separation is something we’ve had to get used to over years so although I do miss her terribly, a lot more than I expected, I also know how much she is enjoying it so I don’t mind at all. As for changes in Sue, the main thing is I think she’s becoming an adrenaline junkie!

What is next for you both?
We haven't really got as far as talking about post-race. Just about the only mention so far has been when Phil went to the dentist, who told him that he was following the race closely and was ready to fit me in when I got back! I'm looking forward to being a 'lady who lunches' for a few weeks, then who knows? As Sir Robin says - the race will be the most amazing thing I've done with my life... So far!

Phil: I think it would be very unfair on Sue to talk about post-race happenings. She needs all her wits about her to complete the race. I have never done anything like the race and wouldn’t want to but I once spent seven months doing a job where you were on a high most of the time and when I returned to the UK and normality it took me months to unwind. I have absolutely no doubt Sue will be the same. You’ve only got to read what the leggers who are back at work have to say!

Sue, can you ever imagine Phil doing the race?

Phil's star sign is Leo, and they are supposed to be luxury lovers, so he is very typical. I can't see him ever doing the race. He pointed out to me that he used to get paid for roughing it in the army, so why should he pay somebody to let him do it now! His love of comfort does have its advantages though - when he books the stopover accommodation it's always really nice!

Phil, are you up for the challenge?

Phil: I no longer do “roughing it”. I did for many years and believe me when I could get out of it I did, even when I was being paid for it. I remember my last posting in the Army, (in the North of England) I was in charge of the unit and every February the unit would go out on exercise in the cold and wet. I’m proud to say I got out of it for three years in a row!!

I am not under estimating the challenge that the Clipper Race crew and especially the round the worlders have undertaken and I respect every one of them for doing it, but it’s not for me.

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