Tugela 20s: Berg chill provides testing start to river racing season

2012-08-14 00:00

DESPITE the snow and freezing weather last week, a record entry of 420 paddlers gathered in Winterton last weekend for the annual two-day Winterton Spar Tugela 20s race.

This year the race doubled as the KZN K2 Championships and a trial for the KZN team to the SA K2 Breede in the Cape next month. With the Thursday holiday, the organisers extended activities to Friday for a long weekend, offering an extra C Class river race on part of the main course. This effectively gave the large number of novice paddlers, just getting started, an effective three races in one weekend to kickstart their river racing careers.

KNCU’s new safety officer, Andrew Lake, and the safety officials from the hosts, Rorke’s Drift Canoe Club, were on hand in the morning to run proficiency tests and the racing began just below Spionkop Dam at 2 pm on a 14 km C Class course ideal for beginners.

Len Jenkins, paddling with river novice Julie Cornelius, led home the field of 140 mainly novice paddlers.

Saturday dawned bright and crisp for the start of the main race just below the Driel Barrage in the shadow the snow-covered Drakensberg outside Bergville. Initially there was no indication of the howling Berg wind that was to dominate the rest of the day, and the leaders set off at 10 am racing for the first and main obstacle in the race, a large weir just 200 m below the start. As usual the weir took its toll, with almost 90% of the first batch seen sharpening their swimming skills early in the day.

The course is quite straightforward after this initial shock and the leaders soon settled down to some hard racing, with Len Jenkins and Dewalt Hattingh just outsprinting Murray Starr and Gavin Shuter for a first-day win of just over two seconds at the finish at Tugela Rapids 24 km downstream. They were followed less than three minutes later by the leading juniors, Louis Hatting and Brian Leroux, six seconds ahead of Thulane Mbanjwa and Mmeli Cele. Juniors Brittany Petersen and Kerry Shuter dominated the woman’s race, finishing nine minutes clear of Jenna Starr and Francis Beresford.

As the wind increased the race became a test of endurance for the rest of the field struggling to keep their craft facing in the right direction as they squinted downstream through a fog of fine dust that soon hid the magnificent scenery from sight. Back at the main campsite at the Winterton Country Club, the wind had taken a severe toll among the tents dotting the rugby field, and many of the B&B owners in the area benefited handsomely.

However the spirits of the paddlers remained undaunted, being lifted by three sheep on a spit and two lucky draw boats on offer by the organisers. One of the boats was destined for the school with the most entries. As Epworth and Michaelhouse each fielded 30 paddlers, there was a second draw won by Michaelhouse.

The wind drove the temperature down during the night, lashing huge waves and icy spray across the Day 2 start on Spionkop Dam. Much to the relief of all the paddlers, chief official Gary Green made the call at 7 am to move the start about 3 km downstream to just below the dam wall. This removed the portage around the dam wall and reduced the race to the same 14 km course raced on the Friday, a veritable sprint for the leading boats.

The finishing order for the first two remained the same with Jenkins and Hatting managing to extend their lead slightly to eight seconds. Mbanjwa and Cele overtook the juniors to claim third spot overall. Gene Prato and Calvin McKie took second place in the junior race ahead of Nqobile Makhanya and Sboniso Shozi.

Petersen and Shuter continued their domination in the woman’s race, but the KZN K2 title went to second-placed Starr and Beresford as all KZN Canoeing Championships are closed to KZN paddlers only, and Shuter is from Gauteng. Third overall by just two minutes, second in the junior race and taking the KZN junior title were Epworth’s Jordan Peek and Bianca Haw.

The weekend provided a testing but enjoyable start to what looks to be a great river season in KZN. The team to the SA K2 Breede will be announced later in the week.

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