Myra Van Otterloo, a helicopter pilot from Nanaimo, and Jessa Arcuri, a school vice-principal from Penticton, will be driver and navigator of the True North Rally Cats, the first B.C. team to compete in the Rally Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc, the world’s only all-women’s, fully off-road rally, March 14-28 in Morocco. (Photo submitted)

Nanaimo woman to compete in off-road rally race across the Moroccan desert

True North Rally Cats will be first B.C. team to compete in Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc

A Nanaimo helicopter pilot and her teammate, a school vice-principal from Penticton, will be the first women from B.C. to compete in an international off-road rally in Morocco.

Myra Van Otterloo, of Nanaimo, will be the driver and Jessa Arcuri, the navigator, in the 30th running of the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc.

Van Otterloo and Arcuri leave Tuesday, March 10, for the event, which runs March 12-28 and is the only entirely off-road women’s rally of its kind.

Van Otterloo, who has piloted Sikorski S-61 helicopters for forest firefighting and disaster relief operations for 20 years, said she has always been into trying new things and thought the Moroccan rally would be a fun adventure for her and Arcuri, who is originally from Shawnigan Lake.

“I’d done a rally race course up in Sweden years ago and that was on ice, so this will be totally different, but what I like about this race is that it’s geared all toward women and so it just looked like a great adventure for the two of us,” Van Otterloo said.

The event accepts 170 teams from around the world each year. Women compete in various vehicle categories, such as quad, SUV, crossover and truck to navigate to each day’s destination – solely by map and compass – in the shortest distance.

Van Otterloo and Arcuri will be competing as the True North Rally Cats, but a year earlier and in a different vehicle category than they’d planned.

“We’re Team No. 307 and we’re in the crossover division,” Van Otterloo said. “We were supposed to compete in 2021, but they had an opening and we’re those kind of girls that say, ‘You know what? If an opportunity comes just jump at it and go with it’ … so what happened is we took over for another team that couldn’t make it. Because they offered this to us we had to take their vehicle, so that’s why we’re in the crossover. If we hadn’t, we would have been in the truck series.”

Circumstances dictate they’ll be competing in a Renault Duster, which they’ve never driven.

Their days will start at 4 a.m. when they make their way to the start line and receive their route and destination. It’s up to them to find the shortest route there and deal with any vehicle issues along the way.

“It’s for you to navigate to in the shortest distance, whether that’s over or under or around, your choice,” she said. “It’s just that if you get yourself stuck or have a mechanical [problem], you’ve got to fix it yourself out there.”

At the end of the day’s run, the navigator submits the route taken and kilometres logged. Rally officials check that data against data gathered by a tracking device on the vehicle which also allows people to track a team’s progress in real time online. Cell phones and other GPS-capable devices are confiscated from the teams to prevent them accessing or receiving that information from outside sources.

True North Rally Cats will be the first B.C. team to enter the competition.

“Quebec has had a lot of teams over the years, but B.C. has never had a team yet, so we’re the first B.C. team ever,” Van Otterloo said. “So we’re pretty proud to be representing B.C. and both of us having grown up on the Island, we’re proud of our Island roots and then Jessa, definitely with being in the Okanagan and being a vice-principal at a middle school there, it’s really great for all her students to be seeing what she’s doing.”

Because they won’t be bringing their own vehicle, the $36,000 cost for the rally will drop to about $25,000, but True North Rally Cats is looking for more sponsors. So far, Rotor Maxx Support, a helicopter maintenance firm in Parksville, and V.I. Honda Powerhouse in Nanaimo have stepped up to help.

“We got notice of this on Jan. 29, so we’re trying to put this team together, find sponsors and all that within a month … we’re on our way, we just still have a lot to come up with,” Van Otterloo said.

To learn more about the team or offer sponsorship, visit www.facebook.com/TrueNorthRallyCats/. Learn more about Rallye Aïcha Des Gazelles Du Maroc, the teams and how to track them online at www.rallyeaichadesgazelles.com/en/.

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