Cradock – Spectators at this year’s Fish River Canoe Marathon on Friday and Saturday will be forgiven for thinking that have gone back in some kind of a time-warp as arguably the two top crews from the 2017 race aim for glory again six years later.
The 2017 men’s race, which, like this year’s event, doubled as the South African River K2 Championships, was a triumph for Greg Louw and Andy Birkett. The women’s title that year looked certain to go to Bridgitte Hartley and her Serbian partner Krisztina Bedoc before a late swim at Cradock Weir, almost within sight of the finish, ended the hopes of the international combination.
Neither crew has paddled together much since then, so it is a happy co-incidence that they line up as two of the top contenders for their respective races once again in what has become one of South African canoeing’s most sought after marathon titles.
In the intervening period, both Birkett and Hartley have enjoyed great success at the Fish, earning multiple titles in K1 and K2 with different partners, and this year both are aiming for hat-trick titles after both earned K2 and K1 wins in 2021 and 2022.
However, the 82km race from Grassridge Dam to Cradock on Friday and Saturday is littered with potential pitfalls and both crews face stiff competition from a field packed with potential race winners in the men’s and women’s events respectively.
The 40-year history of the Fish River Marathon is littered with almost as many stories of shattered dreams as there are damaged canoes in a river that has a reputation for being a boat breaker. Rapids, weirs and tricky bridges all have to be treated with respect, and even the best wild-water paddlers in the country have been caught out by the river which becomes a fast-flowing test of skill with the controlled water releases for the race.
In the men’s race, Birkett and Louw will start as clear favourites to claim their third win together, but they can expect to be pushed hard by the top three finishers in the recent Breede River Marathon, Mark Keeling and Luke Le Roux; Israel’s Ron Benjaro and Thomas Lovemore; and the young Jeremy Maher and David Evans.
Ogther potential race winners include Hamish Lovemore and Clint Cook, while the Wayne Jacobs / Bradley Boulle and Msawenkosi Mtolo / Sandile Mtolo combinations were second and third respectively in the recent Liebensbergvlei Marathon and will also be hoping to be in contention at the end of each day.
A crew that has the pedigree to claim an easy win is that of 11-time World Champion Hank McGregor and two-time K2 Marathon World Champion Jeremy Candy from France.
There will be question marks over Candy’s ability in the big river conditions, but with McGregor’s rough-water expertise developed in the surf and rivers over many years, any potential weaknesses from the Frenchman in flowing water conditions should be nullified. If they are still in the lead group in the dice for the line each day, their combined explosive finishing sprint should ensure they are elevated to undisputed favourites.
In the women’s race, Hartley and her international partner may face the same questions over their big-water abilities – especially after their race-losing swim in 2017. However, like McGregor and Candy, the South African Olympic Sprint medallist and Bedoc, who has for five World Championship sprint and flatwater medals, will be tough to beat if they can stay in contention until the last few kilometres each day.
Hartley’s partner in the 2021 race-winning boat, Christie McKenzie, and Saskia Hockly are probably the women’s crew to beat this year, along with Jade Wilson and Nikki Birkett. Another crew in contention could be Jenna Nisbett and Pippa McGregor, while Candice Starr and Stephanie von der Heyde will be looking to cause an upset.
The 82km race starts on Friday morning at Grassridge Dam and the first stage ends at finishes at Knutsford Bridge, 46km downstream. Day Two takes pladdlers from Knutsford to Cradock, a distance of 36km.