Flight of the navigator


The truth, so they say, is out there. But I don’t buy it. I just don’t have the coin for that sort of frippery.

It’s not that I think we’re all alone in the vast abyss of bleak eventuality. I ain’t no holodeck denier. On the contrary: I’m the first to check for ectoplasm at the sight of a flattened patch of grass in the back garden and my tin foil hat collection is mighty fine, thank you very much. I’m actually pretty certain there’s something more than our piddling little race around, ruining distant worlds with the same cognisance and ill-manner as our own. Not because I’m knowledgeable on the subject – I wouldn’t even know where to put a probe – but to think otherwise just seems like one hubris too many for me.

I’m not saying then that the truth isn’t out there. I just get the funniest feeling that it’s probably somewhere a lot closer to home instead.

Hear me out now; I’m not talking about Greys in the mountains or lizard men keeping goal for Coventry. My encounters have been anything but close. But when you struggle with anxiety, sometimes it seems that the rest of the world has evolved and left you well and truly in the homo habilis stage.

Let me explain. Have you ever had one of those moments when you just don’t feel like you fit? Not in a ‘does my bum take up your entire field of vision’ kind of way; but like you’re a round hole in a room full of very square shovels. Okay, now extrapolate that to pretty much every situation you’ve ever been in – include the times you didn’t think anyone was watching. Fun, right? But that’s how it is when social anxiety takes hold. The world outside your head becomes as foreign to you as though you’d got a late deal on teletext, and belonging is something you only ever experience in the negative.


For the most part nowadays, I’ve moved beyond such stresses, able to find the smallest commonalities with which to conquer my discomfiture in even the most hostile of circumstances. So it came as a bit of a surprise recently when I found myself in a situation so very alien as to have its own government cover-up. In my defence, not only had I never been near a rally before, I’d never been to Kirkcudbright so the whole experience was something of a shock to the system.

Even just pitching up for scrutineering the night before the UsedCarParts Solway Rally was otherworldly. I mean, scrutineering: there are prison customs that sound less damaging. But, in effect, the process is more Health and Safety than Burke and Hare. All 90 competitors entering the race were required to attend, bringing cars, clothes and, in my case, confusion for inspection. No roll cage left unrocked, no plug unsparked.

It was waiting in line to have my race licence checked that I lost control of my first rally driving preconception. All around me weren’t the arrogant boy racers that I’d entirely expected to see, but instead a warm, eclectic bunch of enthusiasts, ready to throw their all at a challenge and hope it didn’t throw back. And it wasn’t just the race teams that impressed upon me the fact that I knew nothing of the might of rallies. The energy of the marshals, the quality of the free home-baking, even the seamlessness of such a complex registration process, were well worthy of documenting.

Given the location though, perhaps the organisation levels shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise. The rally does, after all, take place on military land. Arriving at the Dundrennan range to guard dogs with bite considerably worse than their bark and signs in the toilets politely requesting you refrain from disposing of your explosives therein, could have been a little overwhelming, had it not been for the fact that my whelm was already completely over by the time I’d even reached the car park.


Photo by Arthur Weatherly

I was to be co-driver, or navigator; hilarious given the fact that I can’t navigate a straight line without a map from One Eyed Willy. Easy, you may think, if you know your north by northwest, but Archie Leach couldn’t outrun this one. Co-driving is so much more than just signposting. It’s timekeeping and admin and highlighting; basically, it’s office work, but at speed. For weeks beforehand, I studied the code of the pace notes; learning the hieroglyphs that would become my direction in life – or at least in rally. And, as ever, the prep was worth the aeration, as when I finally settled into that Ford Fiesta R2, strapped in to within a millimetre of my chest measurements, I knew exactly what I should be doing.


Lights counted down to our 9:48 start time: red, amber, greeeee…

Right three, over crest, into left four; I rushed through the notes, yelling into the microphone that Pete might hear me over the crazy engine noise.

Six minutes of hairpin turns and hair-pin injuries later and before I’d realised I couldn’t see over the dashboard we were across the flying finish to snatch our time and dart off to the next stage start, windows open at last to purge the air of tension and burning flesh.

Our first mishap came in the second stage, when the intercom failed completely, leaving Pete with only his knowledge of the road for company. At that point, he was probably better off because, truthfully, I wasn’t being a very good co-driver. Not that I wasn’t trying: my throat is still hoarse with the effort and I’m not sure I breathed for the entire first stage. But I continually lost the timecards and the pace of my delivery was all wrong; either galloped through to relieve myself of the responsibility or delivered too late to be of any value.


Only in one of the lengthy service stops did advice from fellow co-driver, Tommy, change my course. If you lose your place, he said, Don’t Panic. Towel in hand, I ventured back towards my fate.

In the third stage, we snatched twenty seconds off our time and my driver’s beaming face convinced me that I’d finally done the job I was not being paid to do. From that point onwards, I felt a little more like an asset. Okay, a little less like a burden. I’d already heard tell that I provided a decent weight advantage over Pete’s usual burly navigator, and apparently the car was landing much better with this representative of the Lollipop Guild in its passenger seat, but at last I was useful not only for my stature but for my output. I could feel the bends and crests of the road, and was picking up when to hold back and when to read more quickly. Like breaking a horse, but with gears.

By the time we had reached the eighth and final stage, I was fairly comfortable with the notes, if not with my aching bones. I won’t pretend I didn’t lose the plot, both geographically and mentally, on more than one occasion but, for the most part, I think I stood the test of time-cards. Pete’s driving, though, was immaculate. Even when the brakes overheated in the sixth stage and during the Great Spin Out of the Eighth, he carried on regardless. Well, there may have been a little regard, but no more than was absolutely necessary.

Then we were done, crossing the final finish to a wave from the spectators – and of relief. And it was my turn to take up the Party moniker, as I celebrated not only surviving all eight stages, but coming first in our class, and 19th overall, with a time of 52:45. But mostly just the surviving thing.


My overriding memory of my day as a rally co-driver though will not be the hay bale chicanes or the lingering fuel smell, not even the sickening waits as the course was cleared of debris from the misfortunes of others. Instead, I’ll remember the atmosphere, the camaraderie and the people, many of whom had known each other since childhood and the junior rallies, such as was run the following day.

By the evening’s end, I felt, in some tiny way, a part of the rallying world; a world that only 24 hours before had been alien to me. It goes to show though that just experiencing another way of life, immersing yourself in their bright lights and probing tendencies can open doors, whether to Fiestas or star-ships, and surely that’s worth doing.

Is there life out there, Jim? Maybe. And it might even be as we know it. But there’s definitely life right here and I’m just glad I’m finally learning to navigate it.


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