Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles Opening Ceremonies and Prologue Stage
U.S. teams overcome vehicle shipping issues
March 21, 2013 (Merzouga, Morocco) – The 23rd Annual Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles kicked off with simultaneous opening ceremonies in Paris and Casablanca followed by the transfer and Prologue in southern Morocco.
Over 125 teams from Europe and Africa gathered in Paris at Trocodéro Gardens across from the Eiffel Tower for their official ceremony while teams from the United States, Canada and Morocco convened at the new five-star Hotel Mazagan south of Casablanca. For Morocco, the country that has hosted the rally for the past 23 years, it was especially meaningful to have an opening in their homeland. With eight Moroccan teams this year to represent during the ceremonies and technical checks, the significance was as strong as the turnout. After the ceremony on the beach, teams then departed for Erfoud, Morocco where the start of the competition portion takes place.
The day began early Tuesday morning with 150 international teams participating in an exercise to test odometer readings to ensure scoring accuracy. The teams then started the Prologue from a location set against the backdrop of the iconic Erg Chebbi dunes. The approximate 80 km Prologue provided an initial opportunity for teams to test their skills without affecting their overall score. The test also establishes the starting order for the offical Leg 1 on Thursday.
Chrissie Beavis, navigator for Team # 136 stated, “We hit every other check point dead on. The way to the first checkpoint I realized my watch was throwing the compass off by 3 degrees. Our Isuzu D-Max Truck is really well prepared. The truck only had 520 km when we picked it up, and although not having many test miles, it feels very strong.”
Team # 136 Chrissie Beavis/Bethany Hamilton during Prologue
Unfortunately, for three American teams making their way to Morocco, their adventure began before the event started. A trans-Atlantic shipping fiasco beginning when mechanical problems forced containers to be transferred to other ships. Teams were not notified of the change – resulting in the vehicles not making the technical inspections in time. Teams were forced to look for plan B options at the last minute, which came through from the support and help of existing leasing agencies that provide rally vehicles and mechanical assistance to the rally annually. Amy Lerner and Tricia Reina, whose AEV built Jeep lead them to a strong top ten finish last year were able to secure a 2008 FJ Cruiser with full body armour, dual reservoir suspension, and much needed auxiliary fuel tank. Both Julie Meddows and Pat Klishevich were originally competing in Toyota FJ Cruisers and are now driving Isuzu D-Max pickups secured from the rally preparation company Novateam. The situation will be a true test of the drivers’ abilities to quickly learn the vehicle and perform despite the challenges.
Thursday the 21st marks the first day of full format competition. Over the week competitors will be cross through the famous Erg Chebi Dunes and travel southwest just north of the Algerian border and finish after traversing the haunting Dunes of Chegaga.
Day One – Excitement Grows as U.S. Teams Begin with an Impressive Performance
Team Beavis/Hamilton Perform Well Amongst Seasoned Competitors
March 21, 2013 (El Beg’a, Morocco) – As teams lined up for Leg 1 of the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles, driving conditions were less than ideal with poor visibility resulting from strong winds that began after midnight. In a competition based on dead reckoning navigation and the importance of reading terrain features, the hazy skies added a significant challenge.
The competition leg’s ideal distance was 130 kilometers consisting of seven checkpoints. Although the weather was difficult, it did not stop competitors from bringing their A-game. First-time competitors Chrissie Beavis and Bethany Hamilton showed an effective array of both speed and navigation, hitting all seven checkpoints in an impressive time. The duo is the first-time team to watch as the competitive drive of both women led the team to drive incredibly straight with dead accurate navigating from Beavis and Hamilton driving at a smooth pace throughout.
Beavis’s background and skill sets are notable. She is a highly respected and winning rally navigator in the U.S. but her ability to tackle the first day could be attributed to her profession and hobbies. Her experience as a student pilot, understanding headings in the air and depth of experience in map reading aid her in understanding the competition’s nuances. “I know how to draw on a map very, very well and accurately from architecture. If you have any chance of being dead-on, you need to plot perfectly. I’ve had five years of education in this, leading me to instinctively take care and precision when using rulers.” Emily Miller, Gazelle Rally podium finisher and driving instructor, remarked “This is basically a game of angles and accuracy for Chrissie. She has experience with the the desert terrain which is similar to Southern California and trained in Morocco last year. She is one of the smartest and well-prepared people I know in racing.”
Third time competitors Team Lerner Reina hit every check point except the final one due to the time closure. Despite having their AEV built Jeep replaced last minute due to shipping issues, Lerner adapted to the new, vehicle quite well. “The vehicle was heavier with a different angle but I was able to adjust fairly quickly.” When asked what she was looking forward to as an experienced competitor, Lerner replied “The Erg Chebbi dunes. It’s beautiful out there, and the flow is very much like a dance.”
Most competitors agreed today’s leg presented numerous terrain difficulties with weeds and camel grass leaving many teams stuck at least once during the day. Checkpoint 2 had only two options - the oued (dry river bed) or mini dunes on the other side. To get to CP 3, teams could go directly through the sand or all the way around.
Julie Meddows, returning competitor and navigator for Team # 185 stated they had a few problems during the day, the biggest challenge being navigating through some significant rocky terrain.
Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells, Team #178, were able to hit 5 out of 7 check points in their Isuzu D-Max. Emme, who has been preparing for the rally for two years, admits it was more than she expected. “There are moments you feel you will never find the check point. It’s way more difficult than I thought emotionally. The feeling of not knowing where I am is a bit unsettling, but Sabrina is wholeheartedly committed to this experience as well as myself. We’re happy making the 5 checkpoints.”
Team # 182 Chiadmi/Klishevich had a rocky start, but was able to make three checkpoints while assisting other international teams along the way.
With seven more days of competition, it’s still anyone’s game.
Two – US Teams Continue to Impress Amongst International Competitors
Day Two Provided Unexpected Obstacles as the Line Between Competitors Narrows
March 23, 2013 (El Beg’A/Tisserdome) - Friday’s Leg Two of the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles began with the steady pace brought forth by American Team #136 Beavis/Hamilton. The team rose in the morning to find themselves holding firmly on to 6th place, thanks to smooth, fast driving and carefully chosen lines leaving them at 5.04km points (ISUZU.) In front of them, top veterans such as Dakar driver Elisabete Jacinto and teammate Valerie Dot (Team # 160 – VW) at 3.45 km, Jeannette James and teammate Anne-Marie Borg (Team # 161- VW) at 3.55 km points, Carole Montillet and teammate Julie Verdaguer (Team # 187- ISUZU) at 4.43 points, as well as Laura Nigido-Amisse and teammate Valerie Sanfourche (Team # 147 -ISUZU) at 4.50 and Angélique Alvergnas and teammate Sidonie Dubrule (Team # 162 – VW at 4.64 km.) American Team #136 Beavis/Hamilton is also in 2nd place in the ISUZU Media Challenge as of early Saturday the 23rd (withWomen’s Adventure Magazine as media partner) and 1st place in the 1st time Competitor Challenge. It’s noteworthy that Hamilton has no professional driving experience and this is her first time competing in a rally raid.
The day started off on a less positive note for another team, #178 Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells. They found their Isuzu D-Max in the morning with a flat tire, resulting in the inability to leave the start line at their designated time. Luckily, they received help from another team, and were able to leave an hour after scheduled time.
With weather conditions calming down since the previous day’s leg, light winds and moderate sun made for clear visibility for the teams. A few rough conditions out in the Sahara did provide obstacles the teams could not have foreseen.
At checkpoint 7, around ten teams thought they reached the checkpoint (CP) dead-on, only to see the actual flag was down below their plotted point in a seemingly unreachable plateau. Countless teams were stuck for over an hour, pacing back and forth trying to figure the best way out. Once decided, teams choose a line consisting of rock crawling. Team # 136 cut too early and ended up high centered on a huge rock. It took about 10-15 minutes for them to get out, with five Gazelles on the back left corner jumping on the truck to get traction as the competition vehicle did not have diff-lock. The issue resulted in a hold up of other teams waiting behind them for the line out and an additional 1-2 km cost on their points.
One great surprise was for Team # 182 Chiadmi/Klisevich, who reached CP 3 before many other teams, surprising themselves. Klisevhich mentioned the day before she was a bit disappointed in her team’s performance, however; seemed confident when met at the check point, stating her practice in off-roading over the years has assisted her tremendously in this particular competition where driving skills and driving smart are both key.
Team #107 Lerner/Reina found themselves in a lower ranking as of Friday; however, given their track record in this particular competition and sheer determination at this point it is still anyone’s game. Speaking with Lerner yesterday, she noted the Toyota FJ Cruiser she is driving is more “tank like” and handles differently than her anticipated vehicle, her AEV built Jeep but with her familiarity with the terrain significant issues are not expected.
An interesting terrain element of this particular leg is the “Moroccan cauliflower” a compressed sand moss that’s actually hard as rock and if driven over, results in many stuck vehicles. The cauliflower was sporadicly found throughout the leg which teams had to keep a close eye on to prevent vehicle damage.
Friday the teams drove and navigated about 12 hours plus one hour to the bivouac. Many of the tops teams chose to not take the roads in the beginning, and other difficulties were had between 3 and 4 where there were very difficult canyons teams had to carefulluy rock into and out of, with only one road going through the canyon all under the watchful eye of two guard dogs.
Today is dunes day at the famed Erg Chebbi dunes, where teams must pick their lines carefully and choose to go to the various levels of checkpoints (X) - the easy way or the hard way.