Fish out of water
ESSAOUIRA, Morroco -- More than 5,000 miles from her home on the shores of Kauai, Hawaii, professional surfer Bethany Hamilton wakes before sunrise in the Chegaga Dunes of southern Morocco.
Eight days ago, Hamilton, along with professional off-road car racer Chrissie Beavis, turned in her cell phone in Erfoud, Morocco, and was handed old maps and a compass. Then, she and Beavis loaded up a stock Isuzu D-Max with sleeping bags and a tent and headed into the Sahara Desert. Having met only once before, the two athletes had one goal in common: to take on the 23rd annual Gazelle Rally, the world's only all-women off-road rally race.
"This race is so mental," says Hamilton, 23, who lost her left arm in a shark attack at age 13 but has gone on to become one of the most successful female surfers on the planet. In Morocco, she is doing the bulk of the driving, even though she has very little experience, and has made no modifications to her car.
For Beavis, 32, who is doing all of the navigating and some of the driving, it's been equally taxing. "You have to know where you are all the time," she says. "It's exhausting."
True. One small navigational error and a team can drive around in circles for hours.
While most rally races focus on speed, the goal of the Gazelle is to reach a series of checkpoints while totaling the shortest distance. Over the course of eight days, competitors travel across the desert and over dunes such as Erg Chebbi and Erg Chegaga. It's the perfect race for people like Hamilton and Beavis, who are used to overcoming adversity.
"This is on another level of challenging because I came into this as an amateur," says Hamilton. "In surfing, I'm a professional. As an amateur here, some days you have wipeouts and some days you have good rides."
With one day left, Hamilton and Beavis currently sit in 11th place out of 150 teams -- an impressive place to hold during their rookie appearance. Ahead of them in the Erg Chegaga dunes, the big three -- Carole Montillet, Syndiely Wade and Elisabete Jacinto are battling for first place.
France's Montillet is the 2002 gold medalist in Alpine skiing. She is competing in her 10th Gazelle and won the race in both 2011 and 2012. Wade, the daughter of former Senegal president Abdoulaye Wade, has competed seven times before and won the race with Montillet in 2011. Portugal's Jacinto regularly races the burly Dakar Rally and has come to Morocco for the Gazelle five times. Only one team in 23 years has won during its first appearance, proving that experience prevails for Gazelles.
Also ahead is the mother-daughter team of Brigitte Foucher and Julie Foucher-Mary of France, who are competing in their first Gazelle driving a modified Toyota Prada.
This is the team Hamilton and Beavis care about the most. Currently, the Fouchers rank ahead of Beavis and Hamilton in the "First Time Competitor Challenge."
"We really want to win that race," says Beavis.
But to bump the Fouchers out of contention, they have to be dead on in the Erg Chegaga dunes, and that's not easy.
"The dunes are so hard," says Beavis. "There are no distinctive features for us or point of reference. It's very difficult to take a heading."
Earlier in the week, the team struggled in the Erg Chebbi dunes near the Algerian border. This is where the Fouchers gained a sizable lead in their modified truck, which was perfect for the terrain. Even more discouraging than the Fouchers' lead was that the dunes "psyched us out" says Beavis.
"I'm a driver," says Beavis, "I mean, I like to drive and to have that anxiety about the dunes ... it was 'in my stomach' anxiety. The Erg Chebi Dunes were so high, we just got worked."
And now with just hours left in the race, Beavis and Hamilton find themselves back in the dunes again. While the Erg Chebi dunes were steep and intimidating, the Erg Chegaga dunes have been described as "haunting." Many teams have already thrown in the towel and returned to the bivouac -- a portable campsite that moves with the rally.
With their Isuzu packed and ready to go, Beavis climbs up onto the dune next to their campsite one last time. Holding her map underneath her arm, she looks out into the massive ocean of red sand in front of them. Grasping her compass, she takes a reading. Then she turns slightly and does it again, hand on her forehead like a sailor at sea. Somewhere out there is the infamous red flag that indicates Checkpoint 5.
"We make jokes about how we chase after red flags all day long and laugh about how fulfilling it is," says Hamilton.
Then both women put their helmets on, climb into the truck and speed away.
Soon, the same scene unfolds again. Beavis gets out of the truck, sprints up the dune and looks out into the horizon and motions for Hamilton.
Stop. Go. Stop. Go.
"Chrissie is a perfectionist," says Hamilton. "I've never heard the words left, right, left, right, so much in my life."
But she has to be. As an architect and student pilot, Beavis is used to reading maps and drawing lines, and she's applied those same skills to navigating the rally. Her diligence pays off, too. The team reaches Checkpoint 5 with little trouble. Excited, they head over to the red flag only to find out that the enigmatic Fouchers, a team they've rarely actually seen all week, have already been there, and it's not even 9 a.m.
Then things take a turn for the worse. The team discovers a problem with its steering. Beavis, who is also acting as the team's mechanic, can't figure out what it is. They debate if they should go back to the road and take the easier but longer route to the next checkpoint, but that discussion doesn't last long. No way are they backing down now. As a solution, Beavis gets behind the wheel and "manhandles," as she calls it, the steering as Hamilton runs ahead to check out the terrain. They push on.
Eight days ago, these two women shared only one thing in common: a no-quit attitude. Now they know each other well. "[Bethany] is just the quintessential surfer," laughs Beavis. "It's like we put a mermaid in the desert and she doesn't dry up. It's amazing."
Their combination of spirit works well. By 3 p.m., they've hit all of the checkpoints for the day and have returned to the bivouac. Now they must wait for all the teams to come in and for the points to be calculated.
One by one, cars stream in from all directions across the desert. With sunburned faces, competitors climb out of their vehicles for high-fives and hugs.
As the sun begins to set, two teams are noticeably missing, though. Over the radio in French comes startling news. Jacinto, who was leading the race only a few hours ago, has called for mechanical assistance after her oil pan cracked. The penalty for this is huge. Then, shortly after, Montillet also calls for assistance when her cooling system stops working. The top two teams have faltered, shaking up the race.
If Beavis and Hamilton are paying attention to the news, they don't let on. It's not until after midnight, when the bivouac pulses with music and the Gazelles dance the night away when the results are actually revealed. Taped to the side of the scoring truck, a long white piece of paper ranks teams from countries all over the world, including France, Canada, Algeria, Senegal, Vietnam.
At the top of the leaderboard, Syndiely Wade and her partner Florence Pham cap the list. A few spots below, the Fouchers have also climbed up the rankings to fourth. The list shows Hamilton and Beavis have finished eighth. The team has broken into the top 10 -- a best for an American team competing in its first event.
Sure Beavis and Hamilton would have liked to pass the Fouchers on the last day -- that's just how they're wired -- to win. But of course, without someone to chase, it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun.
1. # 188 Syndiely Wade/Florence Pham
2. # 161 Jeanette James/Anne-Marie Borg
3. # 147 Laura Nigido-Amisse/Valerie Sanfourche
4. # 110 Brigitte Foucher/Julie Foucher-Mary
5. # 195 Eva Devico/Chris Mayne
6. # 191 Kristina Kohlmann/Julie Ackermann
7. # 101 Sophie Fabri/Anne Sophie Dubos
8. # 136 Bethany Hamilton/Chrissie Beavis
9. # 149 Cathy Blanchet-Perrette/Sylvie Freches
10. # 187 Carole Montillet/Julie Verdaguer