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Rallye Aicha Des Gazelles Desert Race - American Women Go Analog

Posted in Events on June 11, 2016
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Eight American teams traded in their cellphones and GPS devices for maps and compasses this year to compete in the all-female Rallye Aicha des Gazelles. For a week and a half, these women navigated 4x4 vehicles 650 off-road miles through hostile Sahara Desert terrain -- a distance equivalent to the flight between Los Angeles and Boise, Idaho. In the end, the U.S.A. scored two podium positions, landed two other teams in the top 10 and snagged a fourth-place result in the rookie category.

For this year’s 26th running of the contest, a total of 162 international entries took the start -- 135 of them in the hotly contested 4x4 division. It was an incredibly close contest. The 2016 event began March 23 in Erfoud, Morocco, with a prologue stage, and officially concluded 10 days later with a prize-giving ceremony in the costal city of Essaouira. The contest included six scored legs of off-road competition over 650 miles, including two marathon legs lasting two days each that saw teams improvise overnight camps alone in the desert.

No American team has ever won the event. The previous best achievement for an American was in 2011 when driver Emily Miller partnered with French navigator Armelle Medard and scored a runner-up result in 4x4. Chrissie Beavis won the Crossover category in 2015 alongside driver Alyssa Roenigk.

Each night throughout the contest, navigators manually plot the hidden checkpoint co-ordinates onto maps provided by event organizers. No GPS or any other electronic aids are allowed. The maps, originally printed in the 1950s and reproduced for competitors, sometimes fail to reflect modern-day realities in the desert, providing an extra challenge for competitors.

In a race where advantage is measured in distance, rather than time, Southern California off-road racers Nicole Pitell-Vaughan, who competes back in the U.S. in the Best in the Desert series, and Chrissie Beavis, an X Games rally gold medalist who co-drives Travis Pastrana in Rally America, brought their Toyota Tacoma home a scant 1.1 miles behind race winners Regine Zbinden and Ela Steiner from Switzerland. It was a best finish for an all-American team in the contest. Also on the 4x4 podium were sisters Susanah and Jo Hannah Hoehn, of Carlsbad, California, who ran the event in a Land Rover LR4.

MARCH 23 – APRIL 2, 2016
2nd -- Nicole Pitell-Vaughan (Corona, California) / Chrissie Beavis (San Diego, California): #180 Toyota Tacoma
3rd -- Susanah Hoehn (Del Mar, California) / Jo Hannah Hoehn (Del Mar, California): #107 Land Rover LR4
5th -- Emme Hall (Oakland, California) / Sabrina Howells (Los Angeles, California): #178 Land Rover Defender
9th -- Susie Saxten (Encinitas, California) / Ivy Cass (Encinitas, California): #184 Jeep Wrangler
20th (4th Novice) -- Teresa Stewart (Kauai, Hawaii) / Sara Jehn (Oahu, Hawaii): #182 Jeep Wrangler
57th -- Elaine Newkirk (Rancho Santa Fe, California) / Keely Sellers (Kihei, Hawaii): #188 Jeep Wrangler
102nd -- Catherine Chadmi (St. Petersburg, Florida) / Cecile Vinson (Vaucluse, France): #127 Jeep Wrangler
110th -- Karen Hoehn (Del Mar, California) / Maureen Gibbons (La Jolla, California): #181 Land Rover LR4

Each morning in the competition, women from 162 international teams hand plot the day’s checkpoints on maps originally created in the 1950s. Then they spend the next eight-plus hours with a teammate off-roading through the Sahara Desert to find them. No GPS allowed. Three-time American navigator Chrissie Beavis won the Crossover division in 2015 and this year finished a very close second in the top 4x4 division alongside driver Nicole Pitell-Vaughan.

Teams cover a diverse range of terrain during their endurance run through the desert, off-roading through dunes, rocky lakebeds, over mountains, ancient craters, and wide-open plateaus. Here, the #178 Land Rover Defender campaigned by Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells and the #184 Jeep Wrangler of Susie Saxten and Ivy Cass make the final run toward the bivouac together late on Day 6.

Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and navigator Chrissie Beavis puts the suspension of the #180 Total Chaos Toyota Tacoma to the test in the dunes. Pitell-Vaughan owns and operates Total Chaos Fabrication, an off-road suspension system and accessory manufacturer based in Corona, California.

Throughout the rally, teams camp in the desert. Most nights, competitors attempt to navigate to a group bivouac and set up camp in a tent city where they are supported by staff and facilities for dining and washing up, and where they can receive mechanical assistance for their vehicles. For the two marathon legs, however, competitors select their own overnight spots and pitch an improvised camp at a location somewhere along the route.

After watching her daughters compete in the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles in both 2014 and 2015, Karen Hoehn decided it was her turn in 2016. She takes a heading with her teammate Maureen Gibbons.

The rookie mother-daughter team of Sara Jehn and Teresa Stewart play hide-and-seek in the dunes as they prepare to navigate the sands of Chegaga in the #182 Jeep Wrangler on the second marathon leg. The pair finished an impressive fourth in the novice division at the 2016 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles.

Emme Hall, of Oakland, California, and Sabrina Howells, of Los Angeles, approach the first checkpoint of Day 2 in the 178 Land Rover Defender. The pair performed consistently near the top of the rankings and finished the competition with a fifth-place ranking, one of four American 4x4 teams in the Top 10. Howells had more starts than any other American this year, returning to the contest in 2016 for the fourth time. It was Hall’s third run on the rally.

During the rally’s two marathon legs, competitors are not provided any facilities or support for overnight camping. Instead, they set up their own campsites along the route. Here, several American competitors and the media following their progress share stories together around a campfire.

Keely Sellers of Kihei, Hawaii, digs out the #188 Jeep Wrangler near the first checkpoint of Day 6. Sellers and teammate Elaine Newkirk of Rancho Santa Fe, California, were first-timers at the event in 2016 and finished 57th out of 135 entrants in the 4x4 division.

The as-the-crow-flies route between checkpoints is often not the easy way, as shown by these steeply climbing tracks. In an effort to shave distance off their routes and gain an advantage over rival teams, competitors at the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles will tackle many features in their vehicles that recreational off-roaders would typically choose to avoid.

Susie Saxten and Ivy Cass, both from Encinitas, California, were strong competitors from the start of the 2016 Rally Aicha des Gazelles. Although Saxten was returning for a second time to the event, Cass was a rookie driver. The pair scored a Top 10 finish in their #184 Jeep Wrangler.

Harsh weather is a hallmark of the Sahara Desert and teams battle through heat and sandstorms during the competition. Here, a competitor reviews checkpoint paperwork with a local rally worker who is wrapped up against the wind and flying sand.

Disaster struck sisters Jo Hannah and Susanah Hoehn when the air suspension went out on their Land Rover LR4. Other competitors stopped to help but were unable to fix it and the girls were forced to limp onward for a bone-shaking drive through the remaining checkpoints of the day. Mechanics at the overnight stop were unable to produce the parts needed to fix the vehicle but their mother, Karen Hoehn, a first-time competitor along with Maureen Gibbons in a similar LR4, gave up her race so the sisters could continue. Jo Hannah and Susanah Hoehn placed third in the 4x4 division – a best finish for the team in three years of competition.

After Jo Hannah and Susanah Hoehn returned to the rally with parts donated by their mother, fellow competitor Karen Hoehn, the sisters plotted a careful course to achieve a personal best third-place result.

Driver Nicole Pitell-Vaughan puts her off-road racing skills and the #180 Toyota Tacoma to the test in the Erg Chebbi dunes during a two-day marathon leg of the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles. Although many competitors in the navigational contest are motorsport novices, these two women from Southern California are both racers at home in the U.S. Beavis is an X Games rally gold medalist and co-driver to Travis Pastrana for Subaru Rally Team USA in the Rally America series, while Pitell-Vaughan races off-road endurance competitions including Best in the Desert’s Vegas to Reno.

Sabrina Howells and Emme Hall head into the desert in their #178 Land Rover Defender to find a line through the dunes during the final leg of competition. Howells and Hall finished a strong fifth in the 4x4 class – one of four American teams in the Top 10 after nine days of driving.

The mother-daughter team of Sara Jehn (left) and Teresa Stewart share an affectionate moment at the finish line of the 2016 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles. The rookie team brought the #182 Jeep Wrangler to a 20th –place finish in 4x4 in their debut outing in the contest.

After nine days of tough off-roading through the Sahara Desert just getting to the finish line is a real accomplishment. Here, Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells, who finished the 2016 Rally Aicha des Gazelles in fifth-place overall, celebrate their accomplishment and their friendship with a heartfelt hug at the finish line.

American off-road racers Nicole Pitell-Vaughan (from Corona, California) and Chrissie Beavis (from San Diego, California) were contenders for the victory all week but a broken strut mount during the first marathon leg cost them their lead. Still, they finished second, a record for an all-American team in the 26-year history of the event.

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