09 February 2011

LRO 4x4 Training Day

Having never had any proper training on how to drive off road, and with the Discovery having low-range gears and a central diff-lock which the Freelander doesn't, I thought it wise to have some tuition. A friend mentioned that the LRO Adventure Club was organising a training day with Protrax at Rockingham Castle (where I had my Land Rover Experience), which isn't too far away, so I booked on as well.

Arriving at the centre there were a couple of Land Rovers there already (plus the LR Experience ones), and after signing in and a cup of coffee we headed in to the classroom for an introduction on the mechanics of driving off road, where the power goes in certain circumstances and how to use the car's abilities to your benefit. In total there were five Land Rovers and six drivers taking part: two Discoveries, a 110, a 90 with two drivers, and a Wolf (110).

From there we drove down to the off road course for our morning session. The weather was dry but chilly, with a cold wind, and I was wishing I'd brought a warmer coat with me as we were talked and walked through the route we were going to follow around the course: down a steepish slope, across a side-slope, through a section of axle-crossing holes (the section shown in the video in my LRE story on this 'blog), through two puddles, up a steep slope then up a parallel slope to the first descent, stopping half-way up to simulate a failure.

We took it in turns to go, there being plenty of room for three cars to be on the course at a time. I was last, and got to the axle-crossing holes before realising I hadn't engaged diff-lock... Land Rovers really are capable! A lack of momentum meant I got slightly stuck (or temporarily detained as the instructor put it) and needed a gentle shove to get enough wheels on the ground to reverse out again and drive around before completing the route.

As is often the case, the same obstacle in the opposite direction is completely different so next we drove the course in the opposite direction. This meant that on the side-slope the driver was on the downhill side, and it takes a lot of concentration not to steer uphill which would increase the lean-angle and could result in the car rolling over. One of the cars had a roof-tent and spare wheel on the roof-rack, but even the resulting higher centre of gravity didn't cause any problems.

Nobody had any particular problems, although the wet, slightly muddy grass did cause a bit of sliding around - wet grass is possibly one of the most tricky surfaces to drive on and is sometimes referred to as "green ice".

For the afternoon session we were going to relocate to Tixover Quarry, a nearby site used for pay and play days which has more space as well as a lake which we could use to practice wading. On our way to Tixover we stopped to grab a quick sandwich for lunch.

On the way from Rockingham Castle to the sandwich shop, a runaway dog, which was chasing another dog which was running away with its owner, decided to bounce in to the road right in front of me. I had already spotted the two dogs, and seen that one of them wasn't on a lead so I was half expecting something to happen. As a result I was able to stop before hitting the dog - but it was a close-call. The others thought I'd hit it.

Arriving at Tixover we had another briefing from the instructor before a 'follow-my-leader' drive around using some of the site's gentler slopes, the edge of the lake and other features to allow us to get a feel for the place.

The afternoon's first session was wading. The route was down a moderate slope, in to Tixover's lake, through it in a gentle arc before choosing one of three exit slopes: gentle, easy or moderate. When wading, technique is very important: too fast and you'll be swamped by the bow wave; too slow and you again risk being caught by the deeper water than follows your bow wave.

 After a demonstration by the instructor, which we were advised to watch carefully so as to get the right route through the water (there were hidden rocks, and the lake is very deep in places!), we all had a go. Carefully down the slope, stopping at the bottom to change gear before driving confidently in to the water. The aim is to create a bow wave and then keep up with the wave to stay in the shadow of it where the water is shallower. Once out of the water there was a simple drive up the chosen slope and round the top back to the start.

The shore of the lake on the opposite side was a good vantage point for photos, although you needed to be aware of the incoming wave so as not to get wet feet.

Next was the same, but in the opposite direction - the instructor was heard to say "perfect" as I waded past his vantage point - but he could have been speaking to someone else...!

With wading mastered we had another 'follow-my-leader' drive before the next subject: rock crawling. Using an area with some scattered boulders we were talked through how to pick a line, hazards to look for (troughs big enough to catch and stop a wheel, for example) and the risks involved in getting it wrong, such as damage to tyre sidewall if you scrape them along the edge of a rock, and tips on how to make it easier, like having a banksman to guide you from outside the car, or in the case of smaller rocks moving them to clear a path or fill-in holes, as well has driving technique on how to stay in control. When it was my turn, the person who kindly offered to act as my banksman directed me around the rocks rather than over them...

A final session of 'follow-my-leader' covering all the things we'd tackled that day: steep slopes, axle-twisting holes, wading, tight turns and rocks, before a free period where we could go and explore the quarry on our own - with a warning about a particularly technical section where we would get stuck, and we'd be on our own if we did!

Shortly after four, with the light starting to fade, we made our respective ways home having learnt some new techniques, reasons why we tackle things the way we do, and a new confidence in taking a Land Rover off road. A very enjoyable day, and excellent value at £50.

Thanks to Lee and Russ for taking some of the photos.

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