An evening on the maps

Many moons ago, a new member of Edinburgh University Motor Sport Club took part in his first navigational event just two weeks after joining the club. He got so hopelessly lost on that year’s EUMSC Training Rally that he had to direct his driver back to his parents’ house so that he could get his bearings, reaching the finish venue an hour and a half after the results had gone final and the Clerk of the Course had sunk his fourth pint. The name of that legendary navigator was Scott Douglas.

Fast forward four years, and just months before completing his degree the same club member – still wearing the same Manchester United top and probably the same jacket – leaps in the air in celebration. He’s finally won a navigational event. How did this happen, I hear you ask. How on earth did someone who once sent the Vice-Captain on a three-lap tour of Haymarket due to an inability to read maps, signs and road markings manage to win a navigational event? Quite easily, in fact. He drove and someone else navigated.

That’s actually a tad harsh, because Scott’s navigational skills have improved greatly in the time since he came to university. Nevertheless, in spite of all his karting success, prior to the Graf Spee Scatter Scott had never won anything on a road rally. It was with that statistic in mind that he decided to recruit a crack navigator to give him the best possible chance of success on possibly his last event before graduation. Unfortunately, however, all the crack navigators were otherwise engaged so he ended up with me, the navigational equivalent of Emile Heskey.

Determined not to let Scott down, I prepared rigorously for the Graf Spee. On the morning of the rally, I took a trip to Princes Street and acquired a split new map and a shiny LED head torch with spare batteries. I purchased a roll of parcel tape on the way home and reinforced my map board. I marked all the grid line numbers in ultra-fine permanent marker and took all the creases out of the map. I even programmed the timer on my iPod so that an alarm would sound every time we had twenty minutes to get back to the main time control and had all the documentation downloaded in pdf format so as to reduce the amount of paper lying around in the footwell.

Scott, by contrast, left for the starting venue with one headlight out and had run out of skooshers before we reached the city bypass.

I didn’t want to say as much to anyone, but I was really, really nervous before the start of the rally. The last time I’d done any competitive navigation was on a Glasgow Uni scatter with James Patterson nearly two years previous, and the last time I’d done the kind of route plotting I’d be doing on the night was when I navigated for Hannah on the Training Rally (the same one Scott got hopelessly lost on) back in two thousand and oatcake. I was up against some extremely good navigators as well. Lucy Fryer in Car 2 had the honour of having never being beaten in any way, shape or form on any event she’d been working the maps on, and over the last year and a bit Richard Crozier had gone from being a stupendously fast racing driver to an extremely diligent navigator. And if that wasn’t enough, when we reached the start venue it transpired that Eamonn Williams, my old sparring partner from ESACC days, was going to be on the maps instead of driving. There was a very real chance I was going to get my arse kicked.

The time between signing on, the drivers’ briefing and the start of the rally passed mercifully quickly, and before I knew it I was instructing Scott to draw forwards and enter the first time control. Clerk of the Course Ewan Leeming handed me a plastic wallet stuffed with paperwork and we were on our way.

The two cars that were running ahead of us on the road had pulled in at the end of the long layby that marked the main time control, the navigators’ head torches beaming downwards as they plotted the various grid references on their maps. Stubbornly refusing to ask the driver to stop while I worked on the map, I directed Scott southwards and told him to drive at a steady pace while I marked the points on the first loop we were going to tackle. Secretly, however, I was more anxious to get out of everyone’s sight before I did something really stupid. As it happened that didn’t take long.

Not six hundred meters after pulling out of the layby, I asked Scott to turn left – just as he was cruising past said left, which incidentally would come back to bite us on the bum later in the evening. Not to worry, though, there was another slot a couple of hundred metres ahead, and with this being a non-competitive section we were at liberty to take whatever route we wanted. Having got us back on track, I set about plotting the control points for the loop ahead. Soon enough, the first control board popped up on the horizon, and for the first time in nearly four years I braced myself for clue solving on the move.

“Just drive slowly to the next junction and if I haven’t told you what to do by then, stop and wait,” I told Scott. My heart raced and the HB pencil jiggled about in my hand as the wee men in my brain raced to the library and took out all the books on clue solving. “Here’s the junction, which way?” asked the driver, the Fabia’s tiny engine whining as it slowed down.

“Err…straight on,” I muttered pointedly, “…and then four hundred metres tee-junction turn right onto a brown heading up to the A68.” My pencil carved the route out onto the map nearly as fast as I could get the words out, skipping the snow-bound road we’d been told about at the briefing and taking in the new detour.

Before I’d even had time to think that things might be going well, Scott said the three words that mean more to a road rally navigator than anything else in the world, the sentence that makes the hearts of those in the left-hand seat skip a beat every time they hear it. Code. Board. Ahead. Yes! I’d remembered how to read a map, I’d plotted on the move and most importantly of all I’d put us on the right route. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

And then we got royally screwed by one of East Lothian’s finest. No, not an over-zealous patrol car or a protective landowner, but by a gritter cantering its way along the B6368 at a steady 25mph. The shower of small stones coming out the back stopped us from getting any closer, and the width of the thing prevented us from making any overtaking manoeuvres. The orange lights on top of the thing were flashing at just the right speed so as to replicate someone sticking their left and right middle fingers up at us in turn, kind of like a school bully deliberately blocking our way down the corridor. Then, for the piece de resistance – or the royal wedgie if you want to keep the school bully theme going – having seen us indicating right the gritter pulled a flanker and decided at the last minute to take a right as well. Incensed, I shook my fist furiously at the big bright Volvo, which probably had no idea we were there, but quickly calmed down and resolved to use the time stuck behind the lorry to check my plotting and have a think about our strategy for the rest of the evening.

My thinking was soon interrupted by a loud whoop from the driver as the gritter went off rally route (reading over that, I make it sound like the gritter crashed but in fact it just went the other way to us at a fork), followed in short order by Jenson Button impersonations as Scott suggested “right guys, let’s go, go, go!” Our speed was short lived, for we found ourselves tackling the notorious Humbie Kirk hairpin. Having zigzagged his way down the hill to the corner, Scott slowed the Fabia right down, engaged first and turned the wheel on full lock. A horrendous scraping ensued as the underside of the car connected with the icy tar underneath, and we lurched forwards towards the flimsy barrier on the outside of the corner. With the revs from the Volkswagen Group engine rising and no forward progress being made, I started to envisage three likely outcomes, all of which involved probable death:

(a) the Skoda would suddenly find traction and we would shoot forwards, smash through the Armco and plunge down a cliff face to our doom, the car probably exploding when it hit the ground;

(b) we would get beached on the tar and be stranded in the middle of nowhere, only to be eaten by a pack of hungry wolves four hours later;

(c) someone else would come ploughing down the hill at a great rate of knots, hit us side on and send us flying out of the windows, when we would then be impaled on the church railings.

Thankfully, though, a further option that I had failed to consider presented itself:

(d) Scott stalls the car. We get round the corner by executing a seven-point turn and continue on our way without further incident.

I’ll leave you to guess what happened.

The remainder of the loop passed without incident, however it is at this juncture worth noting that the road conditions were somewhat challenging. Recent heavy snowfall – one of the media buzzwords of the moment – had left large strands of slush lying across the tar. Whist virtually all the roads were passable (I started to feel more and more guilty for getting angry at the gritter as the evening wore on) it would be easy to make a mistake and end up in the boondash. With that in mind, I didn’t want us to have to push on at any point, so rather than going and trying to take in a few extra controls and get bonus points early on, I elected to send us back to the main control to hand our timecard in with plenty of minutes to spare. Others were being a bit more adventurous, but I was happier not to take risks in the conditions.

The next forty-minute loop saw us tackling more twisty and slippery roads, including a short detour to take in a code-boarded loop to the side of one of the A-roads. The clue for that section instructed me to miss three points, one of which seemed to be slap bang on the only road that lead to the next control. Puzzled, I was ready to give up and take the hit for the missed code, until the name of the place above the point caught my eye. Wolfstar. “Wolfstar, that sounds like a good name for a band,” I mumbled. “I wonder why there isn’t a band with that name…hang on, I’ve seen that before, Wolfstar, Wolfstar…hmm…”

Then it clicked. “Slow RIGHT down, RIGHT down” I bellowed. “Look for a wee slot on your left.” This was a famous EUMSC loop, a rectangle of passable gravel roads that added a couple of hundred metres to the route and bypassed the point we were told to miss. “Yeee-haw!” we screamed as the beam of the Fabia’s headlights caught the yellow board ahead. Never before had local knowledge helped me on a road rally, but it had come at just the right time. Buoyed by our success, we zipped back onto the main road and continued on our way. That code board would end up winning the rally for us.

This was followed in fairly short order by Scary Snow Incident Number Two. Despite Ewan’s warnings to the contrary, I’d decided to take us on the quickest route back to the control for the second card collect via Costerton Ford. Now, it does not require a high level of education in the natural sciences to know that low temperatures plus an abundance of water on a road leads to trouble, but please remember that our car was crewed by a student of Politics and a Human (i.e. pretend) Geographer. “That wasn’t too bad, I must say,” announced Scott as we tiptoed our way over the stream at the bottom of the ford. “I was expecting it to be…”

The end of Scott’s sentence was lost under the screams of the Fabia tyres spinning aimlessly atop the icy surface of the steep hill that marked the exit of the ford. The car stopped moving altogether and started to go backwards. Scott heroically built up the revs, dropped the clutch in one aggressive move and promptly stalled. More furious revving and the sound of a clutch simmering on a low heat followed, with no progress. Again I imagined us being devoured by carnivorous beasts, who in this part of the world could just as easily have been human. With a shudder and a jerk that pressed my ribcage against my heart, the Skoda got its fingernails into the ice, and we inched uphill. “I’M DOING ONE THOUSAND RPM,” the driver shrieked at me over the squeal of the engine and tyres. We could see the summit of the hill ahead, and remained silent as we edged ever closer up the tracks Ewan’s Yaris had made earlier in the day. We both inhaled, then exhaled deeply as the ice finally cleared and we shot back onto normal roads. The silence continued for a good six seconds, until I remembered I was supposed to be calling the road and stopping Scott from crashing. Clearly preparing for a future career of putting positive spin on things like MPs’ expenses and cash for questions scandals, Scott surmised “that was a real rally moment, wasn’t it?”

Fired-up and still well on time we went straight into the control, for I wanted to give us as long as possible to tackle the mammoth final loop without having to press on. I think we managed to give the timecard to Leeming without even coming out of second gear. As we exited the layby for what would hopefully be the final time, I realised I couldn’t see the map very well. The wind-up headtorch I’d borrowed from Scott had started to lose its charge and needed would up again (that was, however, better than the torch I’d bought in the morning that flatly refused to work). Giving the driver a few sketchy directions, I removed the navigational aid from my head and proceeded to make an utterly ridiculous noise. “Weeew-weeew-weeew-weeeew” went the torch as I cranked its fold-out handle, progressing to “weeeeeeeeweeeeeeeeweeeeee” as I turned it a bit faster. This made us laugh so much that we nearly missed a slot and then lurched in the direction of a mean-looking snowbank trying to stop.

Despite Mr Douglas’ assurances that, and I quote verbatim here, “half a minute of winding up will last like a million years,” by section two the map was starting to resemble an eighteenth Century parchment again. With a long straight ahead, I excused myself from navigational duties and wound myself up, the torch competing with the 1400cc Skoda motor and the Coldplay tracks on my iPod in the prize for the whiniest thing on board. Six beaming LEDs and some green blobs in my vision were the reward for my efforts, and the two minutes of winding I got on the straight were enough to see us through to the very last code of the very last loop. Six minutes to go and we’d done it. Or so we thought, because we still had Scary Snow Incident Number Three to get past.

Remember that slot we missed right at the start? Well, we were about to come out of it and do the short drive back to the layby for the final time control. Scott slid the Fabia to a halt in the slush, coming to rest at a forty-five degree angle to the road. Six minutes to go, five hundred meters away, yes, you guessed it, we were stuck. As the driver tried a range of gears and throttle strengths in a bid to escape, I prepared to undo my seatbelt and run to the finish. If I could do a mile in five and a half minutes, I could easily do half a kilometre in that time. So up for it was I that I was actually a little disappointed when Scott managed to free his car from its slushy trap and make it back to the end. Ewan cackled when we handed in the final timecard in a manner that suggested there was going to be a tiebreak or at least a very close finish, but I was quite simply glad to have got round in one piece without any major cock-ups on my part. We parked the car, shook hands and went to avail ourselves of Leeming Catering Services’ finest produce.

A slightly less frantic trip back into the countryside followed to collect in the code boards while Ewan worked out the results, and the scores were then read out in reverse order. I must give the Clerk of the Course credit not only for organising a cracking event, but also for his showmanship in building up tension as he announced the top three. Wojciech was desperately trying to peer over Ewan’s shoulder and get a look at the scores, while I was certain Scott was about to urinate himself. After a lengthy and well-worked speech, it was announced that Richard and Wojciech and come just short of doing three full loops, whereas four minutes’ lateness at the end had cost Lucy and her driver Neil Morrison the win by only two points. Scott, ever the humble and modest winner, leapt to such a height that I’m sure his feet were at one point level with my shoulders.

I’d like here to record my thanks to a few folk. Firstly to Ewan Leeming for putting on another first-class event. If someone wants to help me I’ll gladly run the next one so that he can have a go competing. Secondly to Mr and Mrs Leeming for the excellent and well-received catering (it was also Ewan’s dad’s first competitive event in thirty-odd years). And thirdly to all the crews – in particular Wojciech and Richard in the Honda and Neil and Lucy in the Corsa – for a great evening’s competition, and especially for putting up with Scott’s trademark subdued victory celebrations. Oh, and thanks also to Scott for putting up with my rubbish navigation all evening.

So there you have it. It has only taken the best part of four years, but Scott has finally won a navigational rally. I should also say that I was extremely impressed with his driving all evening – being quick in the karts at Raceland is one thing, but driving safely and sensibly whilst still making progress on icy country lanes is quite another. Not once did I have to tell my driver to calm down, nor at any point did I find myself trying to brake from my side of the car. After numerous OTLs on road rallies and second places in karting, Scott Douglas has won an event outright. Something his idol Nick Heidfeld would do well to learn from.

*for those of you that don’t follow football, Emile Heskey is an English centre-forward who, despite loads of experience, has managed to be completely and utterly useless for as long as anyone can remember and has not improved one iota with age.

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