Durban – Andy Birkett and Sbonelo Zondi fired a shot across the bows of serious Dusi title hopefuls with an emphatic victory in the 50 Miler Canoe Marathon, which covers two-thirds of the Dusi course but with a strong emphasis on paddling instead of portaging.
The combination, first cobbled together for their victory in last years Non Stop Dusi, is being widely billed as a Dusi Dream Team, but they have not showed all their cards in the current season until this weekend’s victory over a very strong Dusi field.
They took full advantage of a flurry of mishaps to befall the fancied crew of Hank McGregor and Jasper Mocké to post a three minute victory over former world champion Cam Schoeman and his Czech Republic partner Jakub Adam, with 2013 K1 Dusi champ Lance Kime and Thulani Mbanjwa sealing the last spot on the podium.
“It was such a great race for us in terms of learning and building the partnership,” said Birkett. “On Day One we were not that great in the river but we got better and better and on the final stage we were really much better in the boat. That really is what building a partnership is all about.”
“Eric (Sbonelo Zondi) has a great sense of humour and we laugh and chirp each other a lot during the race, which I love,” he added. “Paddling for me is all about fun. If I am not really enjoying myself then I can’t perform,” said the new Under 23 World Champ.
The pair started the final day with a short lead over a chasing duo of McGregor and Mocké and Kime and Mbanjwa, and managed to hold onto that lead on the technically demanding section of the uMngeni river below Inanda Dam, which was running at an exciting but unforgiving 22 cumecs level.
With the race rules forcing all the crews to paddle around the Burma Road Portage, Birkett and Zondi were first into the nasty Island rapids on the outskirts of Durban and managed to emerge with their lead and boat intact.
For chasers McGregor and Mocké their race ended in Island One rapid where they wrapped their boat after a nightmarish turn of events.
“My splashcover popped from the pressure of the water,” McGregor described. “The nose didn’t come up and it started filling with water fast. We tried to roll it over but the boat got sucked under and wrapped around a big brick of a rock.
“Thank goodness neither myself nor Jasper got hurt. It took 25 minutes for us to get the boat off the rock, but it was wrecked.
“Only our egos are bruised!” he added. “Until that happened, we had been going really well. We caught the leaders before Side Chute rapid and there was plenty of laughing and joking. It was just a great day on the river.
“Maybe I jinxed us because I was teasing Andy (Birkett) and Sbonelo (Zondi) saying they didn’t know the river because they always run over Burma Road. I deliberately let them go into Island Rapid first, thinking they might make a mistake, but it turns out it was us who didn’t come out of it!”
The incident that ruled them out follows a frustrating first day where they completed the 30km stage with a badly broken nose of their boat, after a collision with Len Jenkins’s craft in Mission Rapid right at the start of the race.
The thrilling women’s race was won by Abby Adie and Anna Adamová over the gutsy Hillary Bruss and Alex Adie, with the impressive juniors Jenna Ward and Kerry Segal in third. Adie and Adamová finished an impressive sixteenth overall.
“We had around a minute and half in the bank after day one but we knew that Hillary (Bruss) and Alex (Adie) would shoot everything to try and make up time, so we knew that we had to go really hard. To finish with a seven minute lead in the end was really encouraging,” said Abby Adie.
The result is vital to the crew with dreams of winning the Dusi in February because Adamová now flies back to her home in the Czech Republic where she is committed to top level cross-country skiing races. She will return in mid January to resume her Dusi preparations.
“Day One was a bit hectic,” said Adie. “We got stuck on rocks, and we took a swim at Gauging Weir. Anna also fell on the Second Saddle portage. But at least this was a good taste of what the Dusi will be like, racing at this sort of intensity,” she added.
“It couldn’t have been any better in terms of final preparations before Anna goes back home,” Adie added.
The U23 title went to the Soweto duo of Siseko Ntondini and Thando Ngamlana, who held off Murray Starr and Gavin Shuter, while the juniors race was won by the Michaelhouse crew of Patch Dillon and his Under 16 partner Alan Houston.
SUMMARY OF RESULTS
50 MILER CANOE MARATHON
1.Andy Birkett/Sbonelo Zondi 4:06:34
2.Cam Schoeman/Jakub Adam 4:10:20
3.Lance Kime/Thulani Mbanjwa 4:11:03
4.David Chaplin/Mark Mulder 4:20:15
5.Jacques Theron/Shaun Griffin 4:22:31
6.Siseko Ntondini/Thando Ngamlana 4:22:32
7.Murray Starr/Gavin Shuter 4:26:44
8.Ben Biggs/Karl Folscher 4:26:47
9.Josh Kippen/Andrew Adie 4:30:49
10.Kwanda Mhlope/Zonele Nzuza 4:32:55
1.Abby Adie/Anna Adamová 4:40:12
2.Hillary Bruss/Alex Adie 4:47:35
3.Jenna/Ward/Kerry Segal 5:02:38
4.Debbie Germiquet/Carmen Donald 5:03;19
5.Jordan Peek/Brittany Petersen 5:05:45