Fish River Canoe Marathon set for a humdinger

Fish River Canoe Marathon (Supplied)
Fish River Canoe Marathon (Supplied)

Cradock - Paddlers from every corner of the country will converge on the small Karoo town of Cradock, for the 37th edition of the Fish River Canoe Marathon that gets under way from Grassridge Dam on Friday and finishes at the Cradock Sports Grounds on Saturday.

The event, which has become a staple on many paddlers calendar, offers guaranteed good water, challenging rapids and a weekend filled with the best Karoo hospitality.

This year the race will double as the South African K1 River Marathon Championships, underscoring the high regard that paddlers and administrators hold for the two day, 82km event.

The battles for the various national age group titles are always tightly contested and looking at the sharp end of both the ladies and the men's fields the racing will be red-hot right up to the finish on Saturday.

Seven-time race winner Hank McGregor returns to a happy hunting ground for him. The veteran hasn't had much time in his river K1 this year, or in a K1 at all in fact, but with years of knowledge and a competitive edge like no other he will be a formidable opponent.

Chasing McGregor down will be his Euro Steel team-mate and K2 partner Andy Birkett.

Birkett has won the last two K2 Fish's, however he is still missing that K1 crown. Birkett's form in 2018 has been exemplary and it wouldn't be surprising if he was to take home the national crown and a maiden Fish singles crown on Saturday.

Among the other men's contenders are the likes of Jasper Mocké, who paddled to a third at the recent ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships, and Stuart Maclaren.

Mocké is a fierce competitor so it will be exciting to see how he navigates his way through the big rapids of day one and whether he can keep up with what is probably going to be a blistering pace on the front.

Stuart Maclaren represented South Africa at the recent Marathon World Championships in a K2 but his ability in a K1 must not be underestimated.

He has spent a lot of time playing second fiddle to the top paddlers and will be hoping that the Fish can give him an opportunity to break into the big time.

A dark horse in the fight for a podium spot could be young Under-23 ace Alan Houston. The Euro Steel and Maties paddler was at the Pre-Fish a few weeks ago sharpening his skills and might just upset a few if the two days go according to plan.

From a ladies perspective it seems like it could be a two-horse race to the finish with Bridgitte Hartley and Euro Steel team-mate Jenna Ward fighting it out for the title.

Both have never won a K1 title at the Fish and have been in good form this year so the race should be an exciting one to watch.

Hartley, who won a bronze medal at the Canoe Sprint World Championships in August, has improved her river skills from the last K1 race at the Fish and she mentioned that she is looking forward to the challenge.

Ward has always had the river knowledge but her form at the Marathon World Championships recently, where she finished fourth in the ladies K1 race, will give her a lot of confidence going into the showdown.

Young Christie Mackenzie might come into the fold, however she might be fighting it out for a minor spot on the podium.

The 48km and 36km stages will test all the paddlers with exciting rapids and weirs to negotiate throughout, with close on 1000 paddlers entered, many of them in K2 and K3 craft in addition to competitive paddlers entered in K1s.

With the bulk of the larger rapids on the opening day of the race it will be important for paddlers to negotiate the likes of Keith's Flyover and Soutpansdrift Rapids successfully to ensure they get to the overnight stop below Knutsford unscathed.

Stage one of the Fish River Canoe Marathon takes paddlers 48km from Grassridge Dam to below Knutsford.

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