EAST LONDON – Hank McGregor gave himself the perfect send-off to the World Championships next month by winning the opening day of the Biogen Pete Marlin Surfski Race on Saturday, and in doing so claiming the South African Championship title.
In the women’s race, Kira Bester had a near miss with a breaching whale to avoid a repeat of last-year’s last-gasp disaster, and she was duly crowned the new SA Champion after a convincing victory.
KZN’s McGregor, who leaves next week on a month-long trip that he is hoping will culminate with a victory in the World Championships in Australia, led a three-boat group home with East London-local Josh Fenn just edging our Western Cape’s Uli Hart for the silver and bronze medals.
“I had a proper dice with Uli for about the first 12 kays,” said McGregor after the 22km race from Orient Beach to Yellow Sands off the East London Coast.
“I managed to get away from him and then I had quite a nice lead all the way to Yellow Sands Point, but was trying to conserve energy because I was worried about them catching a wave from behind, and wanted to have enough gas in the tank to make sure of the win.”
While McGregor’s victory was somewhat uneventful, Bester had to survive a scare that brought back a couple of unwanted memories before comfortably beating Saskia Hockly and Nix Birkett into the lower steps of the podium in the women’s race.
“I’m very, very pleased with this win because last year was quite a train smash,” said Bester while remembering being knocked off her ski by a wave within sight of the finish in 2022, and before recounting her second close-encounter with a whale on Saturday.
“It’s actually ironic my near-miss with the whale today, because last year I broke my boat just after Pete Marlin when a whale breached and smashed into my ski.
“So seeing another whale and it only just missing me, brought back a bit of a trauma and I was ‘Oh no, not again.’ But then, when I looked back, I was very pleased it had just missed me.”
Besides that, Bester was clearly the strongest paddler on the day and broke away virtually from the start to comfortably lead her rivals home.
Sunday’s events are all about the doubles crews with some strong combinations lining up to claim the S2 national title.
The all-Eastern Cape crew of Andy Birkett and Matthew Fenn will be hoping to keep the title at home, but there are is a flotilla of mix-and-match crews that could change that. Arguably the most likely to topple Birkett and Fenn is the WP / KZN crew of Uli Hart and Hamish Lovemore.
However, other contenders include East London local Joshua Fenn and KZN’s Bevan Manson; Western Cape’s Mark Keeling and KZN’s Jeremy Maher; Western Cape’s Daniel Jacobs and Gauteng’s Clint Cook; and Gauteng’s Brad Boulle and Cape Town’s Luke Le Roux.
In the women’s doubles race, Nix Birkett will be paddling with Jade Wilson and are sure to be tough to beat, although the 2022 doubles winner and former South African, Chloe Bunnett, will be looking for a repeat victory. She is now living in Spain and has teamed up with last year’s mixed double runner up, Tracey van der Walt. Two other young crews to watch closely are the Junior World K2 Champions Georgia Singe and Holly Smith, and Hockly with UK’s Rosie Edwards.
The mixed doubles is always an interesting tussle but it is hard to see anybody beating Hank McGregor and his wife Pippa.
They are an accomplished crew with Pippa definitely not just in the boat with her illustrious husband to make up the numbers.
“We’ve done quite a few races together this year and to share something with your wife is quite special,” said Hank earlier this week. “We won the world mixed doubles championships last year at World Canoe Champs and we thought it would be really cool if we could add the South African Mixed Surfski Champs by winning the Pete Marlin.
“I really enjoy paddling with my wife and I’m going to be leaving next week for Hong Kong and I’ll be gone for nearly a month, so it was like the last time to really share some quality time together, and nothing better than actually being able to do a race together.”
After his victory on Saturday, when asked if he was going for a doubles victory with his wife, McGregor said he already was, because “being able to paddle with my wife is already a win.”