Blue Lagoon – 24 year-old Andy Birkett further etched his name into the Dusi Canoe Marathon record books on Saturday when he edged out 2013 winner Lance Kime and ‘Dusi Darling’ Sbonelo Khwela in record time on route to clinching a fifth race title.
Given Birkett’s young age, the feat is even more impressive and the Euro Steel ace now joins race legends Peter Peacock, Harry Fisher and Gordy Rowe on five victories and while ‘Dusi King’ Graham Pope-Ellis’ record of 15 titles remains safe, for now, Birkett is fast closing in on second on the list Martin Dreyer, who won the race seven times, even though it’s not a focus of his.
Birkett became the first person in the 64 year-old race’s history to drop under the eight hour mark as when crossed the line in 7:55.35, five minutes and eleven second ahead of Euro Steel team mate Kime.
“Today feels like the first time that I have won Dusi; I am really stoked to be honest,” said Birkett.
“My build up wasn’t ideal coming into Dusi but no build up is so I am just really happy that I was able to pull it off today!
“I’m not chasing records, I am not trying to overtake anyone for total number of wins. I just want to take each year as it comes as I really enjoy paddling and Dusi is such a special race. There is a great build up, the community really gets together for it and it’s great to be here with a victory!” he added.
Birkett started the day with more than five minutes between himself and Kime however with Khwela in third and renowned for his abilities to run with a boat on his shoulder, there was little margin for error.
Mistakes were however something that Birkett had made very few of throughout the contest and despite struggling with some tired legs, the young champion put in a near flawless effort to Blue Lagoon to clinch a memorable victory.
“Today I felt the pressure and battled a bit going over Burma – the legs were taking a bit of strain.
While 2013 winner Kime had hoped for another crown, his second place to Birkett was only marginally less satisfying than a victory.
“To finish second to an athlete of the calibre of Andy’s is something I certainly can’t be unhappy with and it almost still feels like a win, not a second place,” said Kime.
“Andy was superb throughout and he really has become and a top local and international competitor and a tough paddler to beat,” he added.
Khwela too had hoped to claim the top step of the podium however the Euro Steel/Red Bull competitor – a product of Martin Dreyer’s Computershare Change a Life Academy – had to settle for third, a far more satisfying third than his 2013 result.
“To finish in third is really special. I have been working so hard over the past three days!” said Khwela.“Today I woke up and told myself that the race only ends at Blue Lagoon and there is no way that I can give up and anything can happen so today I pushed hard to Burma to see if I could close the gap and make up some time.”
“When he put in first I thought that I might be able to catch Lance but he was so solid today all the way to Blue Lagoon,” he added.
The top three performed a touching gesture on the final stage as all three wore black arm bands in honour of Heini Jordaan who sadly passed away during Friday’s second stage.
“Yesterday really was a sad day for both the sport and the Dusi,” said Birkett solemnly. “Our Euro Steel team decided to wear these bands in memory of the paddler that we lost yesterday and hopefully nothing like that happens any time soon!”
“Unfortunately the reality of our sport is that it is dangerous but it was still a really sad day!”
Build it/Williams Hunt’s Thulani Mbanjwa, the fourth member of the ‘Fantastic Four’, cruised through in fourth position while Andrew Houston (Seed Co.) continued his consistent run of form and retained his top five place he started the day in and, in so doing, soared to victory in Under-23 Men’s clash.
Houston’s younger brother Alan made it two titles from two for the Houston family as he clinched the Under-18 boys top step of the podium.
1. Andy Birkett 2:19.35 7:55.35
2. Lance Kime 2:19.18 8:00.46
3. Sbonelo Khwela 2:18.01 8:03.47
1. Andrew Houston 2:24.57 8:31.27
2. Banesti Nkhoesa 2:25.32 8:37.27
3. Mhlonishwa Hlongwane 2:26.54 8:38.51
1. Alan Houston 2:31.40 8:53.29
2. Mpilo Zondi 2:29.21 9:00.38
3. Thomas Lovemore 2:46.04 10:16.39
All images: Anthony Grote