It’s that time of year again when women with a passion for off-roading from all over the world converge on Morocco for the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 (Gazelles Rally). The race is in its twenty-sixth year and shows no signs of slowing down (pun fully intended).

“Since its creation, the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc has been developing a new vision of automobile competition: no speed and no GPS, just old-fashioned navigation, entirely off-road: a return to the roots of Adventure.” –

163 race teams assembled in Nice, France for Administrative, technical verifications and the opening ceremonies before heading to Morocco. Once they arrived in Africa, it was a matter of making sure all participants were prepped, checked and briefed before Stage 1 took place on Thursday March 24, 2016.

As with most desert races there was excitement from the start. For starters, a sandstorm caused visibility issues. Expert class leaders, Team 403 (Jeanette James/Anne-Marie Borg) who finished in second place last year, suffered a broken axle that took them out of contention. This reduced the number of Expert class teams to a mere ten.

Team 171 (Carole Guillot/Pauline Grison) needed mechanical assistance for a damaged steering shaft and eventually finished in 133rd place overall, carrying a 557.47 penalty. While Team 186 (Béatrice Picard/Guilène Tabary) somehow found themselves on a course for the Algerian border until the organizers, who monitor all the teams’ locations alerted them.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 Day 1
Team #107 navigator Susanah Hoehn, from Del Mar, California, takes a heading at the start on Thursday to establish the correct route. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

Although this isn’t about who finishes first there is a time limit. Navigational errors and mechanical problems put incredible pressure on competitors who must already endure desert heat (plus that Day 1 sandstorm). By day’s end, twelve teams didn’t make it to the bivouac; and had until noon the next day to cross the finish line.  That should give them enough time to get ready for the next stage and head back out into the desert…if they’re up for it.

While some struggled, others were victorious. The top spot for Quad/Motorbikes went to veteran Gazelles, Betsy (Elisabeth) Kraft and Sonia Baudoin-Guerard on their #27 Polaris Scrambler 1000. The French duo of Céline Véga-Roïatti and Sophie Fabri took top honours for the Crossover class in their #323 Dacia Duster.  This is Véga-Roïatti’s eighth time as a Gazelle and Fabri’s fourth. Team 407 of Sylvie Freches and Carole Montillet won the 4×4 Expert class in a Toyota HDJ 80.  They have a combined eighteen Gazelle Rallies between them. The ladies to beat in the largest class, 4×4 / Camions were USA’s Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Chrissie Beavis in the #180 Toyota Tacoma. Beavis won the Crossover class in 2015 and this time around the pair aims to be the first Americans ever to win 4×4.

Here’s the official report on all the teams representing the USA:

American teams conquer Day 1 of the 2016 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles
Sandstorm, unpredictable terrain challenge competitors

EL BEIDA, Morocco (Thursday, March 24, 2016) — Despite strong winds that ripped through the bivouac overnight at the 2016 Rallye Aicha des Gazelles, all eight American teams got off the line Thursday for the opening leg.

Leading the American charge was the #180 team of Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Chrissie Beavis. The experienced duo brought their Toyota Tacoma home second in 4×4 in Wednesday’s unscored prologue and were rewarded with an excellent second-place starting position in the competition.

An early start is critical for teams seeking to maximize daylight navigation and manage fatigue in this endurance challenge. Thursday’s 105 kilometers took many teams more than nine hours of careful, straight-line driving over challenging obstacles.

“There was a lot of terrain you couldn’t drive over that wasn’t shown on the map,” said Beavis. “Maybe I wasn’t giving enough respect to the tiny little things on the map but if it wasn’t for Checkpoint 2, it would have been a pretty easy day.”

The pair reached all six of their assigned checkpoints on Thursday on a route that was very close to the straight-line ideal, and were the first Americans back to the bivouac. It is expected their performance Thursday will be enough to put them in the top five; official results from Leg 1 will be available Friday.

All competitors faced rugged terrain during the opening leg, including steep rocky pitches, long stretches of sand and notoriously difficult camel grass. “It’s absolutely miserable to drive in, miserable to get unstuck from, and miserable to navigate through,” said Susanah Hoehn, a Carlsbad, California, resident who is competing in the #107 Land Rover LR4 with her sister, Jo Hannah Hoehn.

Considered the most prestigious all-women’s motorsport event in the world, 162 international teams took the line in 2016. The unique competition is an off-road test of dead reckoning navigation across 1,500 miles of rugged desert terrain.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 Day 1
Chrissie Beavis and Nicole Pitell-Vaughan plot a route for the #180 Toyota Tacoma to the final checkpoint of Day 1 at Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

Rally Aïcha des Gazelles
USA Teams Notes and Quotes
March 24, 2016

Day 1

Location: El Beida
Ideal distance 105 km
Estimated time 8:30
Checkpoints: 6

Team #180: Nicole Pitell-Vaughan (Corona, California) / Chrissie Beavis (San Diego, California): Toyota Tacoma
After a strong finish in the unscored prologue, Nicole Pitell-Vaughan and Chrissie Beavis were confident heading into the first day of competition on Thursday. They reported a relatively smooth Day 1, despite having to face down some unexpected course features. “There was a lot of terrain you couldn’t drive over that wasn’t shown on the map,” said Beavis. “Maybe I wasn’t giving enough respect to the tiny little things on the map but if it wasn’t for that, it would have been a pretty easy day.”

Team #184 Susie Saxten (Encinitas, California) / Ivy Cass (Encinitas, California): Jeep Wrangler
With a 13th place result in Wednesday’s prologue, #184 team of Susie Saxten and Ivy Cass were the only American team to join Chrissie Beavis and Nicole Pitell-Vaughan in the top 15. They continued their momentum on Thursday, achieving all of their checkpoints and making a quick return to the overnight camp. Driver Cass, who is a first-time competitor, said she is learning quickly how far she can push the team’s Jeep Wrangler. “We did some training in the desert before we got here, but I had no idea how much a car can handle,” she said.

Team #178 Emme Hall (Oakland, California) / Sabrina Howells (Los Angeles, California): Land Rover Defender
An error from Emme Hall and Sabrina Howells Thursday cost the #178 team some time and will add a distance penalty to their score, but that left the team determined to forge ahead. Hall chose a bold line to the second checkpoint of the day, successfully traversing a steep ridgeline that deterred many others. “We knew that checkpoint was on the other side and we didn’t want to go around,” said Hall. “We had already added kilometers with a mistake and I didn’t want to add any more. I was pretty sure the Defender could do it — but I wasn’t 100-percent sure.” The pair achieved all their assigned checkpoints for the day and returned to camp.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 Day 1
#178 navigator Sabrina Howells directs driver Emme Hall to climb their Land Rover Defender up and over a mountain in order to maintain a direct approach that saves mileage and time on Day 1 of this challenge of straight-line navigation. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

Team #107 Susanah Hoehn (Carlsbad, California) / Jo Hannah Hoehn (Carlsbad, California): Land Rover LR4
The sisters Susanah and Jo Hannah Hoehn also achieved all six of their assigned checkpoints but said they struggled with inconsistency. Like Chrissie Beavis, Jo Hannah Hoehn said she thought the maps used in Thursday competition – which were originally printed in the 1950s — were tough to interpret. “There were certain marks that didn’t look significant on the map but were actually cliffs,” said Hoehn. “The man who made these maps, as amazing as he probaingly was, was not consistent with the markings. I envision all the Gazelles meeting him in heaven someday and having a word with him.”

Team #127: Catherine Chiadmi (St. Petersburg, Florida) / Cecile Vinson (Vaucluse, France): Jeep Wrangler
The American/French team achieved the first three checkpoints of the day but went off track while looking for the fourth. They safely returned to the overnight camp and will penalized for missing three checkpoints.

Team #181 Karen Hoehn (Del Mar, California) / Maureen Gibbons (Del Mar, California): Land Rover LR4
While this rookie team admitted to having a few “wobbles” from the ideal route, Karen Hoehn (who is the mother of competitors Susanah and Jo Hannah Hoehn) and navigator Maureen Gibbons had a strong start to the competition. Hoehn, who turns 60 this year, was in high spirits when she reached the camp after a long day in the desert and joked that not only did her team achieve all six of their assigned checkpoints in the #181 Land Rover LR4 but they found an additional two, as well.

Team # 182 Teresa Stewart (Kauai, Hawaii) / Sara Jehn (Oahu, Hawaii): Jeep Wrangler
The mother and daughter team of Teresa Stewart and Sara Jehn, from Hawaii, spent some of their first day of competition digging their Jeep out of the tough desert terrain – a rite of passage for all competitors in the event. “When we finally got out, I wanted to go back to the bivouac and give up on the last checkpoint, but my mom wouldn’t let us. We finally did get our last checkpoint — almost dead on — and we got back by 5 p.m. My mom was definitely the strength of our team today,” said Jehn.

Team # 188 Elaine Newkirk (Rancho Santa Fe, California) / Keely Sellers (Kihei, Hawaii): Jeep Wrangler
The rookie #188 team of Elaine Newkirk and Keely Sellers found all of their assigned checkpoints before returning to the bivouac. They were not immediately available for comment.

Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles 2016 Day 1
In the spirit of the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles, veteran competitors Chrissie Beavis, a professional rally co-driver from San Diego, California, (under hood) and Nicole Pitell-Vaughan, who owns a fabrication shop in Corona, California, (on the ground) offer some mechanical advice to a fellow team. (Photo Credit: Nicole Dreon, Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles)

A Final Word

We’re pleased to bring you updates on the teams’ progress this year.  If you’d like to follow along with the race in real time, the organisers have provided a live webpage to do just that We also encourage you to follow them on social media.