Paddlers face test on low river Paddlers face an ‘old school’ Dusi race with additional obstacles on a low river

2017-02-22 06:00
Despite coming so close to a maiden K1 title in 2013, Euro Steel/Red Bull's Sbonelo Khwela is in strong form and definitely a title contender at the 65th edition of the FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon from 16-18 February 2017. PHOTO: Gameplan Media

Despite coming so close to a maiden K1 title in 2013, Euro Steel/Red Bull's Sbonelo Khwela is in strong form and definitely a title contender at the 65th edition of the FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon from 16-18 February 2017. PHOTO: Gameplan Media

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WITH the region still in the grip of the brutal two-year drought, the 2017 FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon got under way at Camps Drift this morning and will echo the races of old as paddlers will have a number of additional obstacles to manage on their three-day journey from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.

The FNB Dusi has always revolved around the participants taking on the prevailing conditions as they find them and with a highly charged and competitive field assembled for the race, the classic looks set to reward one of the trio of stars who best adapt to the “old school” Dusi.

“Our support for the sport reaffirms our belief that adventure is at the heart of innovation and this is one of many platforms on which we seek to make a lasting connection with our clients,” said Howard Arrand, KZN provincial head of FNB Business.

The race promises to test every aspect of the paddlers’ Dusi armoury, from the usual portaging skills and technical river tests to additional curveballs in the form of the explosive growth of hyacinth.

In the build-up to the race, three paddlers look most likely to be on the podium at the end of the race. Euro Steel/Red Bull’s Sbonelo Khwela won the Umpetha Challenge and the coveted 50 Miler Canoe Marathon. These two Khwela wins were straddled by Euro Steel’s Andy Birkett who took home the honours at the Ozzie Gladwin Canoe Marathon presented by Parklane SuperSpar.

Multiple marathon world champion Hank McGregor threw his hat into the Dusi ring early in the summer and it did not take the Euro Steel/Kayak Centre ace long to sound his intentions with a win at the crucial Campbell’s Farm to Dusi Bridge race in January.

Defending K1 and K2 champion Birkett (26) is hunting down a formidable seventh FNB Dusi crown this year.

If he should win, it puts him among some of the greats of the race with an incredible seven wins in eight years of paddling. It will see him join the “Dusi Duke” Martin Dreyer on seven wins, making them tied at the second most decorated paddlers of the prestigious race behind the late, great Graeme Pope-Ellis, who won 15 titles.

The field contesting the gold medal also includes the Hungarian K2 world champion Adrian Boros, eager to test himself in the unique and demanding environment of the FNB Dusi.

It seems that the women’s title race might be slightly more straightforward than the men’s, with only two serious candidates raising their hands ahead of the 120 km journey.

Euro Steel team-mates Abby Solms and Bridgitte Hartley are set to fight it out for the overall women’s honours with the former searching for that elusive K1 title after she broke her Dusi duck in 2016 with a K2 victory.

Solms’ form going into the Dusi has been impressive with wins at all of her build-up races. Hartley, who has not done a K1 Dusi, has been working very hard on familiarising herself with conditions and the challenge of portaging.

The battle for the final step on the women’s podium could be an interesting one with any one of a half dozen paddlers capable of laying claim to the bronze medal. Junior paddler Christie Mackenzie showed her prowess coming second to Hartley at the Umpetha Challenge and third behind Solms and Hartley at the Ozzie Gladwin.

The race has attracted a field of well over 1 000 Dusi paddlers. Many will be familiar with the tough conditions that look set to challenge the field as they hanker back to the halcyon days of the famous race prior to water releases.

Andre Hawarden, five-time winner of the mixed doubles from 1981 to 1985, said: “I’m stoked that the Dusi has got its mojo back! From being a predictable three-day sprint where everyone knew what to expect, we are back to a race of question marks and quick decisions, just like the old days, pre-dam releases!

“We will have to think on our feet in this race. We don’t know what the water level will be and we don’t know where the hyacinth blocks will be.” — Gameplan Media.

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