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Meet the Rebelles: 15 San Diego Women Embark on the Ultimate Adventure

Founded by an Encinitas local, the Rebelle Rally is the first women-only off-road navigation rally in the U.S.


Jo Hannah Hoehn and Susie Saxten are two of the 15 San Diego women competing in the inaugural Rebelle Rally. | Photo: Daniel Mayfield

Imagine spending a full week driving off-road for 10-13 hours every day, navigating unfamiliar and challenging terrain with nothing but a map and compass to guide you. Come October 13, this will be the reality for 100 women from all over the world—including 15 from San Diego—participating in the Rebelle Rally.

Founded by Encinitas local and professional off-road racer Emily Miller, the Rebelle Rally is the first women-only off-road navigation rally in the U.S. Inspiration comes from the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles du Maroc—or the Gazelle Rally—an annual women’s off-road rally in Morocco.

“Emily’s dream was to start an event for women that is long, challenging, and a badge of honor,” says Kirsten Tiegen, media director of the Rebelle Rally.

Each Rebelle team consists of two people—a driver and a navigator—and the challenge is to find checkpoints along the way without the use of GPS or satellite navigation.

Team Dirty Wings: Nick Renae Marcy and Jenn Zipp Richmond.

“This is not a race for speed,” says Jenn Zipp Richmond, a 44-year-old Del Mar resident who is competing together with Nicole “Nick” Renae Marcy, a 40-year-old Minnesota native who now lives in Little Italy. Jenn and Nick met through the Rebelle and clicked right away.

Both Jenn, who is a stay-at-home mother of two, and Nick, a registered nurse at the VA, had been looking into doing the Gazelle Rally in Morocco when they found out about the Rebelle.

“I was having anxiety about traveling so far from home with two young kids, so I thought, this is perfect. This is a rally in my own backyard, I can do this,” says Jenn about the Rebelle, which starts in South Lake Tahoe and ends in San Diego, with a black tie gala at the Del Mar Racetrack.

While both Jenn and Nick are experienced off-road drivers, this will be their first navigation rally. Comparing themselves to some of the more veteran drivers in the race, they both agree that they are in it for the experience above all.

“It’s our very first time and these other women have done the Gazelles; some of them have been racing all around the world, they’re professionals and have everything dialed in. We just want to finish and have fun and up our skills so that we can continue to build on those,” says Nick, calling the Rebelle “a foundation for future endeavors.”

Gazelle Veterans

One of the more experienced contestants in this year’s Rebelle Rally is Jo Hannah Hoehn. The 29-year-old Del Mar resident is a three-time veteran of the Gazelle. She initially got into rallying after receiving an email about the Gazelle in 2013 from Emily Miller, now the founder of the Rebelle, and jumping on the opportunity together with her sister, Susanah. 

Hoehn Adventures is sponsoring six San Diego teams. | Photo courtesy of the Rebelle Rally

“We had zero off-road driving and navigation experience so it was a completely new challenge for us, but it was exciting because it related to what we do, our family business,” says Jo Hannah, who is the general manager of the Hoehn Jaguar/Land Rover dealership in Carlsbad. She describes the experience as challenging, but addictive. “It’s basically like a giant puzzle, where you are concentrating all day for nine days straight. It tests you on every level; intellectually, emotionally, physically.”   

Jo Hannah’s teammate in the Rebelle is Susie Saxten, her best friend since middle school. But it’s still a family affair—Jo Hannah’s and Susie’s mothers are both on a team together as well (a situation that Jo Hannah describes as “jokingly competitive”). In total, six San Diego teams are competing under the moniker of Hoehn Adventures, some of them more experienced than others. But according to Jo Hannah, you don’t need a lot of experience to do well.

“Of course it’s helpful to have off-road experience, but since it’s not a race—it’s a navigation challenge—anyone can win it. That’s really exciting, that you can be a novice and do really well.”

The Magic Map

No GPS or cell phones are allowed during the rally. | Photo courtesy of the Rebelle Rally

With no GPS or cell phones allowed during the rally, contestants are forced to navigate their way through different types of terrain using just a map and compass. One of the hardest parts, according to Jo Hannah, is the mind games that start happening after a long day of driving.

“When you’re tired and you get a little bit lost and you see features around you, subconsciously you want to know where you are so badly that you start matching up features on the map to what you’re seeing.” She calls the phenomenon “the magic map.”

But in a time when most people rely on their smartphone for directions, navigating the old-school way is becoming an increasingly rare and useful skill.

“It’s a real sense of security, knowing exactly where you are and what’s around you,” says Jenn Zipp Richmond. “We don’t always notice our surroundings, but here, you’re able to look at this map and know what’s over on the other side of that mountain.”

Jo Hannah Hoehn has a similar experience: “To know that you, in real life, got yourself somewhere just with a map and a compass—it’s really cool.”

The Rebelle Rally is October 13-22. Follow Jenn and Nick’s team Dirty Wings on their Facebook page, and the Hoehn Adventures teams on their website.

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