Sand blasting: Saxon Express event report

LRO Editor Neil Watterson takes on the military off-road at Bovington

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Ten miles in an hour. Doesn’t sound much, does it? After all, if Sir Roger Bannister had continued running at the speed he broke the four-minute mile barrier, he’d have covered fifteen miles in sixty minutes. But you try covering ten miles following a specified unmarked route, cross country in an almost featureless landscape, spotting and recording the letters stuck on 100mm squares. Welcome to the world of 4x4 navigation events.

We’re at the driver training area at Bovington, Dorset, home to the British Army’s Armour Centre, where soldiers are taught to drive and maintain armoured fighting vehicles. The terrain needs to be punishing to give the service personnel the skills they need; it’s harsh on tanks and even harsher on light 4x4s like Land Rovers.

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We’re competing in Saxon Express, an event run by the British Army Motorsports Association (BAMA) that will challenge both driver and navigator. And I’d go as far to say that the Bovington site offers the best combination of tricky navigation and driving – vast expanses of similar-looking terrain makes it easy to get disorientated, and the power-sapping sand coupled with very cut-up surface means you can’t go too fast, or too slowly.

Run as military exercises in which civilians can compete, all you need is a 4x4, light recovery kit and a navigator, then away you go. The event is made up of different phases, each designed to test driver and navigator, and for this event there are six.

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We kick off with a scatter. We’re set off at minute intervals and the start marshal hands us a map with twenty locations plotted on it. It’s simple enough, visit as many of the locations in any order in the time allowed and record the letter we find in the appropriate box. Sean, my son who is navigating for me, and I are veterans of this sort of event, so are competing in the Expert class – we have to deduce a couple of the locations from the clues given. Our aim is to record all twenty code boards; Novice and Beginner crews have to reach fewer locations.

We clear it, getting into the time control in time (you pick up one penalty for missing a board, two for each minute late – so it’s often better to cut-and-run if you’re close to your time) and it’s onto the trial sections.

Trials are driving a route determined by pairs of canes – called ‘gates’. The further you get along the section without ceasing forwards motion the lower the penalties you score. The aim is to clear it.

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The sections are set up by members of the Dorset Land Rover Club and are, in my opinion, just the right difficulty. Soft and slushy sand saps power, but go too fast and you’ll understeer into a cane. We clear the first section, but can’t quite get the traction to get through the 1 gate on the second section. The third section starts with a deep watersplash before climbing a steep concrete ramp. Traction isn’t an issue there, but it is when we face the soft, powdery sand towards the end of the section – at least the mound yields when I bash our Defender 90’s bumper into it.

Next up is an orienteering section. The locations have to be visited in sequential order and marshals are positioned to check compliance. You mark the scorecards with the punches, so you can’t note a letter down for later…

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I used to marshal BAMA events in the early 1990s and it would be relentless competition. These days you have to take into account driving hours regulations, so there’s an enforced lunch break. Everyone is back in, except Royal Navy’s Rory and Andrew in their Series IIA Land Rover. They’ve broken down, so we tow them off the area to sort a fix (it turned out to be the distributor had jumped out of engagement).

A gymkhana awaits after lunch – an autotest around cones and into garages, but not against the clock – then the Gunnery phase.

This sort of phase is becoming a mainstay of BAMA navigation events, where the venue is large enough. You’re given a distance and bearing. You have to plot it on the map from the firing position, visit the location, record the board and return for the next one. ‘Targets’ at 1km are worth three points, 750m two and 500m just one point. We opt for the high-scoring ones, but despite double-checking our plotting, we can’t find the first, nor the second target, so we go for a closer one, but can’t find that either. We know we’re in the right place, but we can’t find the boards.

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We decide to try one more but are informed the phase has been cancelled as the targets are in the wrong places. I’ve competed in some motorsports where crews would be haranguing the organisers about this sort of mistake, but that isn’t the case today. In the real world mistakes happen and it’s how we deal with them that shows us as we are. It’s easy for crews to fall out when things don’t go to plan; Sean and I are just happy we hadn’t lost the plot…

The temperature has plummeted. Snow is falling and water that’s thrown up by the wheels is freezing on contact with the Defender’s bodywork, but there’s no let-up for us, or the hardy marshals braving the bitter winds and keeping the event on track.

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We face a multi-format phase. Beginners are given sheets with the routes marked, experts get a variety of instructions, from traces to be marked onto maps to grid co-ordinates and tulip diagrams. Both the driving and navigation are hard and we’re up to the site speed limit of 30mph as much as possible to cover the miles. Speed cameras are used to enforce limits and they could be wielded by personnel wearing ‘crinkly green’, so the first you’d know about a speed trap is when you’re flagged down. And a 10-point penalty would spoil your day if you’re after the win.

We have to cut-and-run the end of the final section and check in at the time control ten seconds within our allocated time. Phew.

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So, how did we do? Well, penalty scores range from 17 points to 85 points, with some of the novice teams doing exceptionally well. As for Sean and I, we've taken first overall/first expert. With crews competing from all over the UK – including a Scottish crew who made the nine-hour drive to the south coast of England the day before – it was a tough competition.

Interested in having a go yourself? The next event is Magnum Spirit at Millbrook Proving Ground, Bedfordshire, on Sunday 3 June 2018, and BAMA runs other similar events throughout the year across the country. See you there!