We were in the middle of the Sahara, searching in vain for a flag; a red flag that would be our last goal for the day. We hadn't seen another truck for hours and we had dug our rig out of the sand countless times. We were tired. We were dirty. As the sun went down in a riot of color over the Moroccan desert I thought to myself, "Well, we're good and lost now."
In 2013 and 2014 I participated in what many consider to be the toughest motorsports event on the planet, the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles. The Gazelle Rally is an all-female, nine-day, off-road event through Morocco with no GPS. Points are awarded for the shortest distance between checkpoints, not the fastest time. All navigation is done with a compass and a map. An old map.
And it's in French.
Competing as Team Indiana Joans #178, my navigator, Sabrina Howells, and I are back for the 26th rally in 2016, and we are in it to win it, baby.
Some people compare the Gazelle to the Dakar Rally, but the two events are actually quite dissimilar. The Dakar is a rally for speed and navigators are given detailed road books with specific directions, calling out waypoints and hazards along the way.
In the Gazelle, navigators are merely given map coordinates. By using rulers and math, teams find their heading and their distance. The goal is to get to the checkpoint in as short a distance as possible. Speed is a factor in managing your times, but is not the focus. Each day the straight-line distance can be up to 200 kilometers (124 miles), spread out over between five and seven checkpoints through rocks of all sizes, hard-packed dirt, box canyons, washes, silt and fields of the infamous camel grass -- soft mounds of sand often as high as our truck's windows, with sharp blades of grass growing out the top.
Sabrina and I know all about camel grass, having gotten stuck in it on one rally for over two hours. Two hours of digging, chopping, pulling, reversing, cursing, sweating, panicking and yes, even laughing. Camel grass is the bane of every Gazelle.
Stay on target
Driving in a straight line is not as easy as it sounds. There may be a mountain in your way, or a river, a set of dunes, hell, there may even be a cliff... Teams must decide how to navigate around an obstacle and get back on the correct heading -- or figure out how to just drive through it. Any distance traveled over the straight-line distance is an assessed penalty.
There are no chase crews or cell phones. Teams must make any needed repairs in the field or face a penalty. Winning the Gazelle Rally is all about taking thoughtful risks and MacGyvering your rig to get you back to the bivouac, where the mechanics fix any and all problems overnight.
The Rallye Aicha des Gazelles explores the wonder of Morocco (pictures)See all photos
My navigator Sabrina and I make a pretty good team. We're both competitive but still live by the theory that all competition should be fun. We communicate well and above all we take care of each other. This goes beyond just making sure nobody is around when we take our bathroom breaks au naturale in the Sahara. Sabrina guides me through the dunes like a pro and I make sure she stays rested, fed and hydrated. Errors are made, of course, but we have a system. When one of us makes a mistake we need only to say the secret word and the other is obliged to forgive. It's a way of recognizing the mistake without dwelling on it.
I'd tell you our secret word but it's part of our power. I can't relinquish that for a mere blog post.
British heavy metal
Most Gazelles are from Europe and drive their 4x4 rigs down through Spain. As Americans, we could ship a vehicle, but the logistics are complicated and we find it easier to rent. This year we're excited to be driving a 2007 Land Rover Defender 110. The turbocharged four-cylinder diesel is modified to put out 170 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual with a low first gear for rock crawling puts the power down to all four wheels. The long wheelbase of the Defender 110 will take some getting used to, but I'm excited to drive a vehicle that is world-renowned for its rugged unstoppability.
We'll be running General Tire Grabbers and a 50-inch dual white-amber light bar provided by Sierra LED Lights in Sacramento, California. We hope to not be out in the dark, but if we are, four feet of LEDs will easily slice through the Moroccan night. We'll carry a high lift jack, an air compressor, all our tools and spare parts as well as four Maxtrax recovery boards. These boards are shoved under each wheel when stuck, providing extra traction to get the vehicle going again.
A few weekends ago, Sabrina and I went out with other teams, led by Gazelle podium-finisher Emily Miller and off-road guide Nena Barlow for a little brush-up training in the dunes of Glamis, California. Jeep was kind enough to lend me a practice vehicle, a 2016 Willys with a six-speed manual.
The first order of business was to declinate our compasses. Declination is essentially the difference between true north and magnetic north. The angle will be different depending on where you are in the world. Glamis has a declination of 11 degrees east. Thankfully, Sabrina's compass is adjustable for declination, so she didn't have to remember to subtract 11 degrees when taking her readings. Mine sadly isn't, so I think I'll be buying a new one, to the tune of $150 or so. The last thing I want is to accidentally drive us into Algeria because of a simple math mistake.
After that it was time to load up our gear into the small cargo space of the Jeep Willys and head to the dunes.
Surf them dunes
Driving in the dunes is tricky. The first thing we did, of course, is air down the BFG Mud Terrains on the Willys. Since we didn't have beadlock wheels, which prevent tires separating from rims at low pressures, I chose a conservative 20 PSI. I have gone as low as 14 on regular wheels, but would not want to go any lower.
Once in the dunes, we practiced navigating on a topographical map of Glamis. We plotted a point on the map, found our heading and distance and took off to find the checkpoint, driving in as straight a line as possible.
Shifting a manual in the dunes can be delicate. Dune driving is all about momentum. Once you lose that, you might as well get out your shovel as you're probably going to get stuck. Putting the Willys in 4-low and starting in second gear, I was able to shift to third and maintain enough momentum to get up and over the small 20-25 feet (6-8 meter) dunes.
Time of day can also affect the texture of the dunes. The hotter it gets, the softer the sand. We entered the dunes at a late hour, with the sun blazing above and the temperature around 90 degrees. Not ideal conditions, to say the least.
And of course, it's difficult to drive in a straight line in the dunes. Doing so can often put you at the bottom of a bowl or through a sharp divot in the sand caused by wind, known as a witch's eye. Instead the navigator has to keep her eye on the prize while the driver finds a line through the dunes. It's exhausting and exacting work.
Because we had aired down, committed to our driving lines and kept up momentum, we were able to navigate the dunes to our practice checkpoint without getting stuck. It's always a good day when you don't need need to dig.
Willy make it? Of course!
The Willys was an excellent practice vehicle. The 3.6-liter V-6 pushed out 285 horses and, more importantly, 260 pound-feet of torque to power up the soft stuff. I love that it's so old-school, with a shifter for the four-wheel drive system and no infotainment. The short wheelbase is great for maneuverability, but getting to your gear can be difficult with only two doors. The zippered back window quickly became stiff with dust and grit and nearly impossible to open and close. All the more reason to just drive it topless at all times.
The bigger tires make the Jeep a bit noisy on pavement, but you're probably not interested in a Jeep for its ride quality. I averaged 17.7 miles per gallon over 300-plus miles of highways and a day and a half in the dunes.
Many off-roaders are dying for a diesel power plant in the Wrangler, and so far Jeep tells us we'll get one...sometime before 2022. Thanks for nothing.
We couldn't do it without you
Rallying, as you may know, can be quite expensive and Team Indiana Joans wouldn't be having this adventure without the help of our sponsors. Thank you to our title sponsor, resqme, for providing us with the tools we need to keep safe. Sierra LED Lights gave us our light bar, and Maxtrax gave us two recovery boards to add to the two we already had. Special thanks to Total Chaos Fabrication, Manhattan Country Club and Ambit Pacific Recycling for believing in us.
Other folks that have helped us include SuperDuty Headquarters, Meehan Motorsports, Lakeland Marine, Wesco Performance and Off-Road Vixens.
Technical verifications of the Gazelle Rally start on March 18 in Erfoud, Morocco, and competition is held March 23-31. Team Indiana Joans #178 will be sending back updates as we can to Roadshow and you can follow all nine American teams -- and even send us messages of encouragement -- at gazellerally.com.