Cradock – Pre-race favourites and 2015 and 2017 champions Andy Birkett and Greg Louw survived a big scare to sit ominously in a three-boat leading bunch after the opening day of the Fish River Canoe Marathon on Friday.
The Eastern Cape pair led into the approaches to Keith’s Flyover Rapid about 10km into the stage, and, in a surprise to both themselves and their rivals, the two-time race winning combination fell out even before the main part of the rapid. Luckily they managed to swim their boat through the rapid unscathed and were later able to chase back to the lead bunch and keep themselves firmly in contention for the South African K2 River Championship title.
At the end of the 46km opening day from Grassridge Dam to Knutsford, former World Marathon Champion Birkett and Louw are third, just two seconds behind stage winners Hamish Lovemore and Clinton Cook, with the international combination of two former World Champions, Hank Mcgregor and his French partner Jeremy Candy, splitting the two all-South African crews.
While the men’s race was a tight affair with four boats in contention for most of the day, the women’s event was largely settled early on. Saskia Hockly and Christie Mackenzie quickly established an advantage which grew throughout the day. They will start tomorrow’s stage from Knutsford to Cradock with a five minute advantage over Bridgitte Hartley and her Serbian partner Krisztina Bedoc, with Jade Wilson and Nix Birkett just under three minutes further back.
Not suprisingly, Lovemore and Cook were very happy with their opening-day result after finishing in a three-boat group that contained three senior world champions.
“It was a great day out there today,” said Lovemore at Knutsford. “We had a lot of fun with the other combinations. Day 1 is always the more risky day with Keith’s and Soutpans, but we managed to get through the big stuff really well.
“I must say the last thing we were expecting was for Andy and Greg to swim, but they closed us down surprisingly quickly so we know we have a big job on our hands tomorrow.
“We were sort of focussing on our own race through the willows after their swim, so we were not trying to keep them away. There were other strong boats with us so we were just trying to keep it clean and focus on what we were doing.”
Lovemore said the fourth boat in the lead group, the Fenn brother Matthew and Joshua, were just unable to hang on over the last few kilometres and they faded to fourth, two minutes further back, with Bradley Boulle and Wayne Jacobs rounding out the top five.
“We tried to test each other after Soutpans (about an hour from the finish) and they (the Fenns) had a bit of a puncture, but they will be charging tomorrow,” added Lovemore.
Cook was ecstatic to be mixing it with some of the world’s top paddlers.
“It it hard to look past today right now,” he said with a broad smile after the finish. “I am just pretty stoked with today’s win.
“I think this is my 15th or 16th Fish and I have looked up to these guys and been trying to get there for quite a long paddling career, so to be up here against them is an honour and I am just over the moon. And to be doing it with pretty much my best mate as a partner is even better.
“But the plan for tomorrow is to just minimise mistakes and get through everything clean and see if we can take advantage of any mistakes from the others. Otherwise it will come down to a bit of a bunch finish at Cradock which will be fun for the spectators.”
In the women’s race, Mackenzie and Hockly took control from the start on Grassridge Dam and were never seriously challenged. Their early lead allowed them to put a pre-race drama out of their mind and take the conservative option of a portage at Keith’s.
“We are absolutely stoked,” said Mackenzie. “We had a clean day which is all we wanted and we are excited for tomorrow. We felt strong all day and I had an absolutely cracker of a partner in the back.
“We wrapped (broke) our nose at Keith’s yesterday and so when we had a bit of a gap over the rest of the field at Keith’s, we did not want to risk anything that early in the race. As it ended up we are super-stoked with our decision because it kept us settled for the rest of the day.”
Saturday’s final stage is from Knutsford to Cradock with the day’s major obstacle, the big and treacherous Cradock Weir, about 3km from the finish line in the town.
Day 1 leading results
1 Hamish Lovemore / Clinton Cook 2:46:01.81
2 Hank Mcgregor / Jeremy Candy 2:46:02.68
3 Greg Louw / Andy Birkett 2:46:03.57
4 Matthew Fenn / Joshua Fenn 2:48:32.77
5 Bradley Boulle / Wayne Jacobs 2:50:14.10
6 Sam Butcher / Matthew Millward 2:52:11.77
7 Msawenkosi Mtolo / Sandile Mtolo 2:53:33.50
8 Matthew Coetzer / Ulvard Hart 2:53:42.87
9 Ross Leslie / Hamish Mackenzie 2:53:44.36
10 Trenton Lamble / Andrew Birkett 2:53:45.38
1 Saskia Hockly / Christie Mackenzie 3:04:36.50
2 Bridgitte Hartley / Krisztina Bedoc 3:09:41.13
3 Jade Wilson / Nix Birkett 3:12:25.01
4 Candice Starr / Stephanie Von Der Heyde 3:19:02.39
5 Jenna Nisbet / Pippa Mcgregor 3:21:13.61