The 46km first stage of the 39th edition of the Fish River Canoe Marathon ended with both the men’s and women’s favourites finishing together, setting up a thrilling final stage of the iconic race on Saturday that is also deciding the SA K2 River Championships.
After taking an early lead the crew of Andy Birkett and Nick Notten paddled into the finish at Knutsford alongside the K2 of Hank McGregor and Hamish Lovemore, with the pair of Jasper Mocké and visiting Frenchman Cyrille Carré close behind.
In the women’s race, more drama moulded the days racing, but it ended with Christie Mackenzie and Bridgitte Hartley finishing a boat-length ahead of Jenna Nisbet and teenager Saskia Hockly.
Birkett and Notten led the star-studded men’s batch off the Le Mans start at Grassridge Dam and were first to negotiate the big Keith’s Flyover Rapid, nine kilometres into the opening stage.
Three other K2s were right on the rudders, including the young crew of Murray Starr and Stew Little.
By the time they reached Soutpansdrift Rapid, roughly halfway through the first stage, Birkett and Notten had broken clear with McGregor and Lovemore leading Mocké and Carré in a chasing bunch twenty seconds further back.
Birkett and Notten’s lead was erased when they took on a substantial amount of water shooting the big Soutpansdrift rapid, and the chasing trio was able to reel them in before the last portage at Katkop weir.
In the final ten kilometres into the finish at Knutsford Mocké and Carré fell off the back of the bunch, but effectively all three are poised to challenge for the title on the 36km final stage on Saturday.
“That’s river racing! It never goes completely cleanly,” said Birkett. “At Soutpans my splashy popped and the boat filled up with water, and our pumps stopped working.
“I think it is going to be pretty chaotic tomorrow with so many boats together, but that’s classic Fish racing for you,” he added.
In one of the day’s standout performances Maritzburg teenagers Matt Millward and Jack Edmonds finished in eighth overall, racing in a bunch with the leading Under 23s brothers Josh and Matt Fenn and Sam Butcher and Dave Evans.
The women’s race produced far more drama. After breaking a boat in training the day before Mackenzie and Hartley opted to put safety first and portaged around Keith’s Flyover, while Nisbet and Hockly successfully shot it and took the lead.
Mackenzie and Hartley worked hard to catch them again, only to take a swim at the small weir above Soutpansdrift Rapid and gift the lead back to Nisbet and Hockly.
It took another hard charge back to get Mackenzie and Hartley back onto the women’s race leaders wave and they completed the eventful stage together, with Jordan Peek and Pippa McGregor in third eight minutes further back.
“It felt like we were sitting really nicely in the boat,” said Hartley. “It is probably the best we have combined in a river boat.
“I felt like we should rather back ourselves and be cautious in the beginning and then just work really hard from there,” she added.
The race concludes with the 36km final stage from Knutsford to Cradock, with the leaders starting in a reversed order elapsed time at 10:30am.
1. Andy Birkett/Nick Notten 2:42:04
2. Hank McGregor/Hamish Lovemore 2:42:05
3. Jasper Mocké/Cyrille Carré (FRA) 2:42:25
4. Clinton Cook/Wayne Jacobs 2:48:29
5. Murray Starr/Stewart Little 2:48:33
6. Joshua Fenn/Matthew Fenn (U23) 2:49:31
7. Sam Butcher/David Evans (U23) 2:49:58
8. Jack Edmonds/Matthew Millward (U18) 2:49:59
9. Ross Leslie/Hamish Mackenzie (U23) 2:52:47
10. Jacques Theron/Brandon van der Walt 2:52:48
1. Christie Mackenzie/Bridgitte Hartley 3:03:42
2. Jenna Nisbet/Saskia Hockly 3:03:44
3. Jordan Peek/Pippa McGregor 3:11:58
4. Candice Murray/Holly Smith 3:22:51
5. Tracey Campbell/Kirstin Scott 3:23:53
Under 23 Men
1. Joshua Fenn/Matthew Fenn 2:49:31
2. Sam Butcher/David Evans 2:49:58
3. Ross Leslie/Hamish Mackenzie 2:52:47
Under 18 Men
1. Jack Edmonds/Matthew Millward 2:49:59
2. Murray Behn/Jack Shooter 2:59:22
3. Jordan Fenn/Luke Swinney 2:59:30