LRO editor Neil Watterson marshals at the UK’s best 4x4 navigation event
Okay, Be Prepared is more of a Scouting mantra than a military one, but it applies equally to military life. And, for once, I am prepared – well, relatively, anyway.
I’m at GEMM 4x4 Mudmaster, an off-road navigation/driving competition based in Glasgow, run jointly by the British Army Motorsports Association and the Scottish Land Rover Owners Club. Having competed for the past four years, winning in 2015, I’ve decided to marshal this year and assist my regular crew-mate Phil Griffiths in creating and running the final phase of the competition.
You see, Mudmaster is a multi-venue event, with the competition taking place on private land, linked by road sections. The aim is to get round the entire route without picking up penalties for driving or navigation errors, and it’s the lowest score wins.
But, as with all the best-laid plans, things don’t always go as intended, and I was already making the 300 mile journey north before I found out that we wouldn’t be just marshalling, but we’d be course opener. Fortunately, I’d packed my OS Landranger maps of the area; unfortunately I hadn’t plotted the route. Cue a hurried plotting session over a meal in the hotel restaurant after setting out our phase…
We’re just getting ready for the drivers’ briefing when we hear there has been an accident on the M8 – and an amendment to the route is issued, taking competitors off a junction early to avoid it. We’ve waited around for the briefing and, as it has overrun, we’re now short on time – just 15 minutes before car 1, last year’s winners Gordon and Lisa McCheyne, leave. We’d best get going.
Rather than being in our normal vehicle for this event, the LRO 90, I’ve bought our 2012 TDCi Defender 110 Utility. I’ve bunged our set of BFGoodrich Mud Terrain KM3 tyres on it and loaded the back with all the gear we may need, but hopefully won’t, from recovery kit to fire extinguishers – and we have a key to open the gates on the forestry land.
We head off and immediately find that the M8 doesn’t exist on my maps – so we pull off a junction early, just in case. Then, by mistake, we rejoin the motorway, and the back of the queue. D’oh!
Fortunately, it has reopened, and we’re back on track and we get down to the first forestry track and are pleased to find the gate open, and Bobby and Ross manning the time control at the end. They’ll be course closers after the final vehicle has been through.
Turning south, we aim for the next set of woodland and open the gates before dropping into Worm Law. This has been set up as an orienteering section and with 61 vehicles coming through – 37 civilians and 24 military (plus 13 MAN trucks doing a slightly different route) – we stop to inform walkers and cyclists what is going on. All are cheery and thank us for letting them know.
We’re only a few minutes head of car 1 now, so we do a quick sweep of the route, checking for any gates or obstructions that may hinder progress and make our way to the exit.
The great thing about these events are the people involved in running it. Off-roading legend Brian Hartley and his crew are marshalling this phase and when we reach the end, we find Stuart Bankier and friends running the time control. Until recently, Stuart organised the Berwick Classic Rally that Phil and I compete in, so we had a quick catch-up. Then it’s onto the first trials of the day, before a mandatory lunch stop – giving us a bit of time to catch a breath and allowing me to take some photos.
But time waits for no-one, so we soon head off and leapfrog the lunch stop and snack at the next section – four more trials sections at regular site Ballencrieff Mains, just north of Bathgate. Dean Pugh is acting as official and shadowing the event in his L322 Range Rover, and, egged on by some of the marshals, drives the Range Rover into a very boggy section and gets stuck. Fortunately, help is on hand to extract the stricken vehicle before the competitors arrive, so no-one will ever know about it.
We clear a speed check well within the limit – speed guns are deployed on the event to ensure drivers are adhering to high standards – and open the next section of track before reaching a driving test in a farmyard. We’ve a few minutes to spare, so it would be rude not to try it.
Now, I’m not bad reading maps, but I can’t seem to get the hang of test diagrams and we nearly ‘wrong test’ it, but Phil retraces our line and we clear it well within the allowed time. Then Gordon arrives in car 1, with other vehicles following behind. We’d better get going again.
The Carron Valley forest is legendary on Mudmaster events. Not because of the stunning scenery, but because so many crews get it wrong. We check-in and head on through. We’ve got GPS mapping running, in case I need it – we need to be on the right track at all times – but the crews don’t have that luxury; they’re going old-skool with paper maps.
Exiting the forest we don’t spot a close marshal, but there’s no marshal point indicated, so perhaps there shouldn’t be one – anyway, we continue on, down the stunning Campsie Fell and into Lennoxtown, where the final forest section waits. We open the gates and head for the final control, allowing the marshals to head off and grab a brew while we wait in case anyone arrives before they return.
We’re done for the day, but it’s getting dark now – they may need extra marshals to sweep Carron Valley, so we return to the start and wait for the crews to finish arriving before deciding to head in. Just as we’re saddling up, we spot a Wolf 110 almost get to the control, turn around then disappear off. We head off to investigate and see it turn off along another track.
It has stopped, but in the gloom it no longer looks like a Defender – the shape is wrong, so we investigate. The crew had realised they had made a mistake and tried to turn around on a flat piece of land. Unfortunately, it wasn’t flat but a big hole and the Land Rover was leaning at 45 degrees and cross-axled. The crew are understandably quite relieved to see us – we attach a rope to the Jate ring and tow them onto the flat, guiding them to the marshals at the start of the section.
We allow them a few minutes and when Bobby and Ross arrive, we head off to check the lower section for stragglers, while they take the higher road, which the crews should be on. But as we reach the first junction we catch up with the crew again, looking a bit lost. We point out the way they need to go, and we go the other, meeting a set of headlights coming towards us. Another lost crew. As time is rolling on, we get them to follow us to the exit, where they can rejoin the route on tarmac.
Phil and I hang around for a bit and spot headlights coming down the hill, but it’s not competitors – it is George from GEMM 4x4 in his Discovery pick-up – the second closing car; slightly worrying as we know there is at least one crew still in the forest.
We wait for fifteen minutes then leave – there are enough marshals to sweep the forest for lost souls, and we drive along Campsie Fell again, but this time we’re treated to a fantastic vista of the twinkling lights of Glasgow at night.
The temperature is dropping and we get speed-checked again by military police in Lennoxtown (we’re way under the limit again, thankfully). They haven’t seen sixteen of the crews, with only one having arrived in the past 15 minutes – we decide to head in and drive the route, just in case – and immediately find four Land Rovers – three military and one civilian – heading the wrong way, hopelessly lost. We turn them around and lead them out and to the final control of the day. We’re done too, so call it a day – we’ve still got our phase to run tomorrow.
The Land Rovers are covered with a hard frost when we head out to them and we’re thankful for heated windscreens. Once warmed up, we go to the training area just south of Cambuslang, where we’ll be doing our utmost to confuse the crews. They’ve started with a couple of orienteering sections and are making their way down to us via more trials.
We check our phase – called Clockwiser – works, then I head up the hill to make sure any gates are open. The muddy track tests the capabilities of the BFGs, and traction control kicks in to help ascend the soft climb. It’s a long drive to the top of the hill, but it’s clean. There’s no way we could have sent 60+ vehicles up it, but they should be fine descending it, though I do put out some caution boards to slow the crews down. I’ve just put the final board out when car 1 arrives and our phase is live.
The aim of Clockwiser is to have a bit of fun. No maps, no difficult navigation – you just arrive at a board and the number on it tells you which direction to go next. So, if it’s 12, you go straight on. A 3 means 90 degrees to the right, a 9 is 90 degrees to the left, etc. But the crews have to note the numbers down and don’t finish until they have added them up and given us the total. We’ve given them a very generous bogie time to beat – well below a 10mph average speed – but some of the terrain isn’t the smoothest.
The first few vehicles have it toughest, as they should. When we designed the 2-mile route we purposefully didn’t drive in straight lines between the boards, so the crews would have nothing to follow. And with some of the grass being above bonnet height, some of the route isn’t clear – and they have to make a leap of faith that they are going the right way.
We know it’s plotted correctly as we’ve used a compass to measure the angles – and each hour on a clock is 30 degrees – so when you arrive at a point and see a 7, you have to turn 150 degrees left, focus on a point and drive straight to it. Everyone got the route right, but not everyone managed it in time, or added the numbers up correctly (it was 222, if you wanted to know).
With the last vehicle through, it was a case of clearing the site and heading back to the 154 (Scottish) Regiment RLC base for the group photo and prizes.
It’s good to see many of the civilian crews returning and there were quite a few familiar faces in the military – it must be one of the most enjoyable military excercises going. On top of that, eight crews made the short trip across the Irish Sea from Northern Ireland to compete – and they’re going to try to encourage crews from the south to come next year.
Winners this year were Kevin Fulton and Alan Morrison in a 90 pick-up, with just one penalty point, narrowly beating Chris Moir and Andy Couper on furthest cleanest, and Gordon and Lisa McCheyne finished third.
It’ll be back next autumn and we’ve a couple more fresh ideas ready to throw into the mix – see you there.