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2016 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles: A Grueling All-Women’s Event In Morocco

Posted in Events on June 16, 2016
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Photographers: Nicole Dreon

The best story of the 2016 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles? After nine grueling days of competition in what is arguably one of the world’s toughest all-women’s sporting event, the eight participating American teams took two podium spots in the hotly contested 4x4 class; four placed in the top 10; and all finished the international endurance rally that challenged a number of the U.S. teams to persevere through mechanical breakage, intense dust storms, and trials with navigating and motoring over diverse, tough, and unforgiving off-road terrain in the Sahara Desert. Competitors are required to travel over varied landscape using only a compass, plotter, ruler, and black and white maps that date from the ’40s to ’60s to find a series of checkpoints each day—days that typically range from 14 to 21 hours of non-stop driving and navigating.

The top finishes are truly impressive stories: Southern California off-road racers Chrissie Beavis (Rally America) and Nicole Pitell-Vaughan (Best in the Desert) fought for the lead throughout the prestigious four-wheel-drive competition in their Toyota Tacoma. The pair qualified for a First Place starting position and stayed in First Place until Day Four, when a strut mount broke and they had to limp through the remaining checkpoints. In an incredibly close contest over the course of 1,060 kilometers, the duo finished an estimated 1.76 kilometers behind their closest rivals, Swiss teammates Regine Zbinden and Ela Steiner.


The 26th annual Gazelle Rallye drew 324 women from 12 countries entered in 10 quad teams, 6 crossover teams, 11 expert teams, and 135 4x4 teams.


Sisters Susanah and Jo Hannah Hoehn, of Carlsbad, California, finished Third, after struggles with a damaged air suspension in their Land Rover LR4 nearly knocked them out. And Emme Hall from Oakland, California, and Sabrina Howells from Los Angeles, seceded Fourth to a Fifth Place finish by a separation of only .55 kilometers after battery problems with their Land Rover Defender 110 cost the pair time and driving distance in a race where advantage is measured in distance rather than time. However, the clock is ticking at all times, and motoring in daylight has a critical impact on making checkpoints within the allotted time and also greatly improves a competitor’s ability to traverse across rigorous and dangerous terrain with good sight lines.

Impressive, for sure, but it’s the backstories of the 26th annual Gazelle Rallye that will warm your four-wheel-drive heart and inspire your off-road soul. The top backstory from the U.S. teams came from the Hoehn family. As Susanah and Jo Hannah set out on their third rally, they were joined by their mom, Karen Hoehn, of Del Mar, California, who paired with Maureen Gibbons, of La Jolla, California. These first-timers also chose a Land Rover LR4 for their team vehicle. Thinking they would share something remarkable with their mom, little did they know that Karen and Maureen would save them.


Navigator Sabrina Howells directs driver Emme Hall to climb their Land Rover Defender over a mountain in order to maintain a direct approach to save mileage and time for straight-line navigation.


“The suspension's air compressor faulted as we were coming out of a giant crater on Day Six. As terrible as it was, it was really the only place during the rally when we could continue and not bleed significant kilometers because shortly after the crater, everyone had to be funneled onto paved roads and the final two checkpoints of the day were along those roads and were opened later than normal,” explained Jo Hannah, who along with her sibling, is a fourth-generation member of the family’s car business (Jo Hannah is the general manager of a Jaguar Land Rover dealership and Susanah is the service director of a Honda dealership). “It took us about 2 1/2 hours to get out of the crater with the broken suspension, which should have taken 20 minutes, but we had to take the two highest lines we could find so we could clear the ground. During that time, our mom came along the trail and was able to follow us back, which was a comfort in the pitch black. That night, the mechanics were able to put my mom's compressor in ours, and the process was completed only five minutes before our starting line the next day. Our mom has given us so much our entire life; I thought that this event would finally be about her, and the event ended up being about us.

“Another magical component of the story is that when our compressor was placed in my mom’s car, it lifted it enough so that she could drive it on paved roads and travel to the next bivouac,” Jo Hannah enthused. “A new compressor for her car, sourced in Marrakech, arrived the next day in the town near the bivouac, a 10-hour drive away from Marrakech! Friends of our mechanics in Marrakech stuck it on a public bus—it was an unbelievable story.”


The Land Rover Defender of Sabrina Howells and Emme Hall navigates through the sand and camel grass of the western Sahara desert in Morocco.


Another great tale came from the incredibly close contest of third-year Gazelle’s veteran and X Games Rally Gold Medalist Chrissie Beavis, who, along with second-time competitor Nicole Pitell-Vaughan, director of operations at Total Chaos Fabrication, planned and trained for a year to go to the rally and affect a win. “You work all year to go and execute an objective,” said Pitell-Vaughan. “It was a mental and physical challenge to run for the podium the entire time and the competition was tight. While in a oued during Day Three, we were locked in a canyon and had to drive in and out of the wash, and during this leg, we took a hit from the tire to the shock while the truck was flexed as it slid into a hole. The hit caused the shock mount to fail two days later,” described the off-roader that said “second is the first loser,” but was happy with the pair’s solid finish. “The mechanics welded the shock tab back up and did a great job every night maintaining the CRC/Total Chaos Tacoma. It was only my second time participating, and we ran with the experts and UTVs during all the dune days. The Tacoma excelled in the dunes and is a blast to drive.

“There were several factors that attributed to the slight kilometer variance that caused us to take Second Place. We lost a lot of time at the crater when we made a Team USA decision to burn daylight and stay with the Hohens and try and help them fix their suspension. That cost us two hours of daylight, and it was the same day we broke the shock mount. So, Team USA took some heavy hits mentally to both the drivers. Knowing you’re barely halfway through the rally and experiencing vehicle issues that can cost you the entire race really adds to the stress. Plus, sand storms were an added challenge this year for the navigators—it was hard to keep a long distance heading with white-out conditions. It also added to the physical fatigue because it was hard to sleep at night. Also, we had a much longer wheelbase than the winners, and it made some obstacles a real challenge. We moved mountains literally on Day Eight to try and drive as straight as possible.”


In the spirit of the Gazelle Rallye, veteran competitors Chrissie Beavis, a professional rally codriver from San Diego, California (underhood), and Nicole Pitell-Vaughan, who owns a fabrication shop in Corona, California (on the ground), offer some mechanical advice to a fellow team.


It was a third start for driver Emme Hall, who is the driver and trophy winner of her own off-road team. Hall campaigns a two-seat 1,600cc air-cooled VW in desert races in California, Nevada, and Mexico, and also autocrosses her ’04 Mazdaspeed Miata. It was Sabrina Howells fourth rally and the pair, who stayed at the top of the rankings, entered the final two-day marathon looking for a Fourth Place finish. Mechanical issues with their Defender’s battery threw them off their game. “I think it affected us mentally,” said Howells. “We started later than we wanted, and then we got off-track in the dunes.” The team ended up less than 1/3 mile behind the Swiss team of Veronique de Sybourg-Siffert and Emilie Kuhni.

The 26th annual edition of the legendary 2016 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles event began with a prologue day March 23 in Erfoud, Morocco, and officially concluded 10 days later with a prize-giving ceremony in the coastal city of Essaouira. There were six scored legs of off-road competition, including two marathon legs that sent teams out on their own for two days at a time overnight alone in the desert in improvised camps, without mechanical support.

For more info on this unique all-women’s event visit, rallyeaichadesgazelles.com.

The challenge of straight-line driving means teams seek the most direct way over obstacles—not necessarily the easy way. Here, sisters Susanah and Jo Hannah Hoehn work together to ease their Land Rover LR4 over a low wall.

Experienced competitors Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells pick a line through the Erg Chebbi dunes in Morocco in their Land Rover Defender.

Teams may be competing against each other, but the sea of sand is the most formidable opponent during the marathon leg near Merzouga, Morocco. Here, American driver Emme Hall lends a hand with a shovel after coming across a stranded rival.

Experienced navigator Chrissie Beavis, of San Diego, opens the day on Sunday by taking a heading to set the direction of travel for the team’s Toyota Tacoma driven by Nicole Pitell-Vaughan.

The U.S. Gazelles 4x4 teams pose at the conclusion of what is arguably the world’s toughest all-women’s sporting event held in the Sahara Desert of Morocco.

The challenging and picturesque terrain of the Moroccan desert was the location for the 26th annual Gazelle Rallye.

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