Speculation abounds as Fish combos take shape

With the ICF World Marathon Championships just three weeks after the Hansa Golden Crisp Fish River Canoe Marathon, the race will play an integral part in the preparation of a number of the stars heading to China to do battle in the global marathon showpiece.

The Fish has been moved a week earlier this year and will take place on 27 and 28 September positioning it ideally as a last intensive competitive outing for the elite paddlers before they start their taper down for the World Championships starting on 17 October.

Adding to the looming battle on the brown waters of the Fish River, the race will also double as the South African K2 River Championships, ensuring that almost all of the country’s best K2 combinations will be on the start line to challenge for the CSA medals.

It has been confirmed that South Africa’s current World Champion K2 pair of Andy Birkett and Hank McGregor will not be racing together at the Fish this year.

Birkett became the second South African after McGregor to do the K1 and K2 double at last year’s Marathon World Championships and it seems the 29 year old East London-based star is focusing exclusively on defending his two global titles.

McGregor, however, is expected to be out to try and reclaim the K2 Fish title that has evaded him since 2013 when he won it with Grant van der Walt.

With the McGregor/Birkett combination not happening, the chatter in the canoeing community now centres on who will be approached by McGregor for the two-day race into Cradock.

The one combination that isn’t a secret or shrouded in speculation, is the brother combo of Ryan and Greg Louw.

The pair has been hard in training with the Sella Descent in Spain and the Breede Canoe Marathon in the Western Cape being their build up races for the Fish.

Greg Louw won the Fish in 2017 with Birkett, making him the last Eastern Cape local to win their home canoeing major, and the hero of the Cradock community in which he grew up.

Last year’s Under 23 champion Stew Little, who finished runner up to Andy Birkett at the N3TC Drak Challenge in January, will be teaming up with Berg River Canoe Marathon winner Hamish Lovemore for the upcoming Liebenbergsvlei Marathon. That could suggest that the Varsity College room-mates might put in a Fish entry together.

Given the prestige of the Fish, there will be a number of top class elite crews threatening the podium with a strong contingent from the Western Cape and from KwaZulu-Natal expected to fight it out for national bragging rights.

From a ladies perspective, defending K2 champion Jenna Ward will be contesting the 2019 marathon world championships with Kyeta Purchase and the duo will pair up for their first river race together since the 2015 Fish.

Last year’s K1 champion Bridgitte Hartley will also be on the plane to China and will be racing in the women’s K2 race with Christie Mackenzie in Shaoxing and the pair have already lodged an entry for the Fish.

Another entry that is confirmed from a women’s perspective is that of Alex Adie and Kim van Gysen.

The potential combinations for this year’s national K2 championships do make for interesting reading and a mouth-watering 82km of racing from Grassridge Dam to the Cradock Sports Complex at the end of September.

Entries are now open!

Entries are now open for the 2019 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon!

Click here to access the online entry page.

We are looking forward to a fun-filled event sharing our passion for paddling on the fast flowing waters of the Fish on 27 & 28 September!

A massive thank you to all our supporters, old and new, who enter our event. We hope this year’s Fish will be filled with lasting memories.

Good luck in your preparations for the event, train hard!

Last but not least, a huge thank you to all our sponsors for adding immense value to our event.

South African Breweries
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Birkett & Hartley claim maiden 2018 Fish K1 crowns

In what were both exciting finishes, Andy Birkett and Bridgitte Hartley bagged their maiden K1 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon titles, and with it the South African K1 River Marathon Championship crowns, at the Cradock Sports Grounds on Saturday.

Both races were far from sewn up with Hartley going into the second day with a two and a half minute lead while Birkett had to overturn a one second deficit over the 36km that make up the second stage of the Hansa Fish.

Euro Steel’s Birkett and team mate Hank McGregor went toe-to-toe throughout the entire 84km and there was a feeling that the race was going to come down to an end sprint again, like it did two years ago. This time it was Birkett who ended on the right side of the result.

“I am super stoked for sure but it shows that there is very little between myself and Hank,” Birkett said. “He probably came past me three times in the last two kilometres and I did the same. Luckily for me that when I went past him it was closer to the finish line!

“It was awesome racing and I have huge respect for Hank. He is a phenomenal athlete and we have had some great tussles.

“It has been a long season for me but it has been great!”

The two could not be separated throughout the race and Birkett knew that there was a strong possibility that the race would end in a sprint to the line.

“I thought that if neither of us made any mistakes then there would definitely be an end sprint, mainly because there has been nothing between us throughout the race. I knew there would be a lot of pressure coming into Cradock,” he added.

In one of the surprise results of the day, Spanish ace Kiko Vega had a barnstorming paddle on Saturday to finish in third place overall.

Clinton Cook relinquished his third place overall and slipped into fifth while Brandon van der Walt finished in fourth.

Hartley’s first major river triumph has come at the end of a strong season for the three-time Olympian and to have a Fish title to her name is the realisation of a career-long dream

“I can finally tick this off the bucket list!” an elated Hartley said. “I think that I have wanted to win this race ever since I put my foot in a canoe!

“It’s just incredible to be able to come away with a win – especially in a single!”

To have a title as prestigious as a Fish title to her name, Hartley believes that it has been the culmination of a lot of hard work.

“I threw myself into a Dusi after paddling flat-water for years, and that was so challenging.

“The K2 Dusi was also tough but a little bit easier and then slowly but surely I did more and it always seemed that I would end second.

“So to finally take a win feels incredible!”

Seven-time winner of the Hansa Fish Hank McGregor had to settle for second place after an exciting end sprint, however he loved every minute of the tussle.

“It was a fantastic two days of racing and it was a win for both us to be out there fighting it out,” Euro Steel/Fenn Kayaks’ McGregor said.

“I managed to catch Andy slightly unawares after the Cradock Weir but then coming into the finish he got the jump on me and he deserves the win.

“It was a great race and I was honoured to paddle with him.”

Euro Steel’s Jenna Ward made a real fist of the ladies race as she pushed as hard as she could on the second day, however, interestingly, catching Hartley was not her main priority.

“I didn’t really keep up with the splits and didn’t worry too much about Bridgitte, I was worried about the big group of girls behind me!” she said with a smile.

“To have a race where the top five girls all finish within a few minutes of each other is incredible and is great for our sport.

“Luckily for me I was able to hold them off and to get my first second place finish at the Fish makes me happy.”

In the ladies top five Varsity College’s Under 23 star Christie Mackenzie finished in third while Robyn Owen and Nikki Birkett finished fourth and fifth respectively.

Varsity College’s Stewart Little and Christie Mackenzie won the Under 23 men’s and women’s titles while Maritzburg College’s David Evans and Epworth’s Amy Peckett wrapped up the Under 18 boys and girls crowns.

SUMMARY OF RESULTS – 2018 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon Stage Two (Knutsford – Cradock Sports Grounds)

1.Andy Birkett 2:06:57 5:00:52
2.Hank McGregor 2:06:58 5:00:53
3.Kiko Vega (ESP) 2:07:49 5:07:36
4.Brandon van der Walt 2:08:48 5:08:36
5.Clinton Cook 2:09:57 5:09:04
6.Siseko Ntondini 2:10:44 5:10:33
7.Stewart Little (U23) 2:09:14 5:11:27
8.Alan Houston (U23) 2:09:17 5:11:32
9.Joshua Fenn (U23) 2:11:28 5:13:42
10.Alex Masina (U23) 2:11:01 5:15:58

1.Bridgitte Hartley 2:21:05 5:40:12
2.Jenna Ward 2:20:26 5:42:06
3.Christie Mackenzie (U23) 2:22:27 5:44:58
4.Robyn Owen 2:23:24 5:45:55
5.Nikki Birkett 2:23:27 5:54:57
6.Amy Peckett (U18) 2:28:46 5:58:05
7.Melanie van Niekerk 2:28:06 6:05:53
8.Caitlin Mackenzie (U18) 2:36:10 6:09:19
9.Kim van Gysen 2:35:56 6:14:34
10.Donna Winter 2:37:47 6:16:35

Under 23 Men
1.Stewart Little 2:09:14 5:11:27
2.Alan Houston 2:09:17 5:11:32
3.Joshua Fenn 2:11:28 5:13:42

Under 23 Women
1.Christie Mackenzie 2:22:27 5:44:58
2.Donna Hutton 2:36:08 6:38:43
3.Lindy Odendaal 8:25:36 18:10:07

Under 18 Boys
1.David Evans 2:11:11 5:16:58
2.Hamish Mackenzie 2:12:18 5:20:12
3.Matthew Fenn 2:11:26 5:20:35

Under 18 Girls
1.Amy Peckett (U18) 2:28:46 5:58:05
2.Caitlin Mackenzie (U18) 2:36:10 6:09:19
3.Tracey Oellerman 2:42:12 6:24:26

Under 16 Boys
1.Sam Butcher 2:19:28 5:34:31

Under 16 Girls
1.Shannon Parker-Dennison 2:43:11 6:29:38

McGregor & Hartley hold slender 2018 Day One leads

In conditions that could be described as near perfect, pre-race favourites Hank McGregor and Bridgitte Hartley made off with the 2018 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon day one spoils at Knutsford on Friday.

Euro Steel/Fenn Kayaks’ McGregor diced it out at the front of the race with good friend and K2 partner Andy Birkett over the tough 48km first stage. McGregor took home stage honours in a tame end sprint – leading by just a second overnight.

“It was a cracker day today,” seven-time champion McGregor said. “We worked hard across the dam and then ran hard around the dam wall to the put in and from there it was pretty much a dice between the two us with a lot of fun thrown in on top of that.

“There were a number of obstacles where we could make mistakes but we worked together and put one another under pressure a couple of times.

“It was all good, hard, fair racing and I think that tomorrow is going to be exciting.”

On a race that has many testing obstacles throughout the 83km from start to finish, McGregor knows that there is a lot of paddling that needs to be done on Saturday if he is to wrap up and eighth Hansa Fish crown.

“You can’t really plan for anything on this race and you can make a mistake pretty quickly.

“I am racing the current world champion in a K1 so I’ve got to have some energy left in the tank,” he added.

Without a K1 Fish title to his name, Andy Birkett is just a second behind leader McGregor going into the final stage. Despite there being a title on the line Birkett relished being back in his river K1.

“Of course there is a race on the go but it’s incredible that we can enjoy the river wherever you are in field and we enjoyed every minute of today.

“First-and-foremost you have to appreciate the river and after going through Keith’s and Soutpans we were both on a high and really just enjoying the day,” Birkett said.

Rising KZN star Clinton Cook grabbed third place on the first stage, edging out seasoned Dusi racer Thulani Mbanjwa, with visiting Spanish ace Kiko Vega wrapping up the top five overnight.

In the women’s race Euro Steel’s Hartley spent the majority of the day on her own following her decision to portage around the infamous Keith’s Flyover Rapid and that decision paid dividends as she ended the stage with a two-and-half minute lead over Jenna Ward in second.

“I started quite slowly but when I got the other side of the dam portage I made sure I stayed clean through to Keith’s and then after that I put the hammer down a little bit,” Hartley mentioned.

“At Soutpans I was really hoping to make it the whole way but I swam at the bottom, but it didn’t cost me too much time.

“After there I paddled really hard and knew I had to do that until I crossed the line.”

Hartley has Ward, and then a group of three paddlers including Robyn Owen, Christie Mackenze and Nikki Birkett chasing her. She wants to make sure that Saturday’s final stage is as close to flawless as possible.

“I am not sure what the gap is but you can never be complacent and just make sure that you race properly for the two days.

“You need to concentrate on shooting everything that you are going to well and pushing hard on the flat water.”

Hartley’s tactic of getting into the lead and putting the pressure on the other paddlers to make up the gap paid dividends for the three-time Olympian.

“I wanted to get ahead because I was a little worried about Soutpans. It is always tough one, especially with more water on race day.

“It was an amazing day and it isn’t the end of the world to have one swim on such a good day!” she added with a smile.

Jenna Ward, along with Hartley, is also in search of a first K1 title at the Fish to go with her 2017 K2 title.

For Ward it was important that she stuck to her race plan and didn’t get carried away if she found herself behind early on.

“I know that the ladies race on day one only starts after Soutpans so I just stayed as calm as possible throughout,” she said.

“I was quite slow across the dam and shot Double Trouble in sixth so I contemplated shooting Keith’s but knew that I needed to keep focused on how I had planned my race.

“Tomorrow there are still a lot of obstacles where mistakes can be made so I will race as hard as I can to the finish.”

Varsity College’s Stewart Little was the first Under 23 across the line on Friday in eighth place overall, while David Evans was the first Under 18 paddler into Knutsford in 12th overall.

Christie Mackenzie, also a Varsity College paddler, was the first under 23 lady home in fifth in the ladies race.

Stage two of the 2018 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon takes paddlers 36km from below Knutsford to the finish at the Cradock Sports Complex on Saturday.

SUMMARY OF RESULTS – 2018 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon Stage One (Grassridge Dam – Knutsford)

1.Hank McGregor 2:53:54
2.Andy Birkett 2:53:55
3.Clinton Cook 2:59:07
4.Thulani Mbhanjwa 2:59:08
5.Kiko Vega (ESP) 2:59:46
6.Brandon van der Walt 2:59:47
7.Siseko Ntondini 2:59:49
8.Stewart Little (U23) 3:02:13
9.Joshua Fenn (U23) 3:02:13
10.Alan Houston (U23) 3:02:14

1.Bridgitte Hartley 33:19:06
2.Jenna Ward 3:21:40
3.Nikki Birkett 3:22:29
4.Robyn Owen 3:22:30
5.Christie Mackenzie (U23) 3:22:31

Under 23 Men
1.Stewart Little 3:02:13
2.Joshua Fenn 3:02:13
3.Alan Houston 3:02:14

Under 23 Women
1.Christie Mackenzie 3:22:31

Under 18 Boys
1.David Evans 3:05:47
2.Hamish Mackenzie 3:07:54
3.Uli Hart 3:09:08

2018 Fish set for a humdinger

Paddlers from every corner of the country will converge on the small Karoo town of Cradock for the 37th edition of the Hansa 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.

Amongst 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 2018 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon takes paddlers 48km from Grassridge Dam to below Knutsford.

McGregor excited for Hansa Fish Challenge

Seven-time Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon champion Hank McGregor has a plan to make up for his lack of K1 river racing time, and the veteran says he is race fit and raring to go at this year’s edition of the race that gets underway from Grassridge Dam on Friday.

McGregor’s racing calendar has been jam-packed throughout the year and with a K2 FNB Dusi title to his name, a K2 Marathon World Championships gold medal to his name as well as a plethora of surfski crowns his K1 has been gathering dust.

“The last time I raced a K1 in a river was the Drak Challenge!” the king of marathon paddling said. “I have not done a lot of river training but that will make the racing this weekend exciting.

“I have done a lot of other racing this year so it’s a case of I’ll either have it or I won’t but I know what to expect at the Fish and I am looking forward to it.”

McGregor will go head-to-head with good friend, Euro Steel team mate and K2 partner Andy Birkett for a shot at the 2018 title. Birkett is yet to win a K1 Fish crown, and McGregor believes that they will leave it all on the water.

“Things have changed a lot since we last had a Fish K1 dice in 2016. Andy is great guy and full of talent.

“We are going to have such a good time dicing it out over the two days and I am sure that the better paddler is going to come out on top.”

The Fish is not a short race with days of 48km and 36km respectively. Despite this, the fast-flowing nature of the river and the intensity of the rapids does make the race exciting and a slip-up can cost valuable time and ground.

“It is always a fast race and it’s about making sure that you are in touch at the end of the first day.

“You never want too much time to catch up on day two because then you expend energy that you will need for the final push to the finish.

“Whoever makes the least mistakes is going to be the one in control because, although you can make up time, it can be really difficult.

“The race is so unique in that you have a sprint across the dam, a hard portage and then you have to hold on through the rapids to the finish of day one.

“Day two is a race to Cradock Weir and then the short, sharp sprint to the line,” McGregor analysed.

Despite Birkett potentially being his biggest threat, McGregor knows that there are other paddlers that can upset the apple cart.

“Every year there are names mentioned and in the past it has been Len Jenkins and Greg Louw but they aren’t going to be there this year.

“Stu Maclaren and Jasper Mocké have been paddling well and are familiar with the river so they will be tough competition.

“I always feel it comes down to who can handle day one the best. If you don’t expend too much energy on day one and avoid trouble you will have a chance on Saturday,” McGregor explained.

Whirlwind month ends with Fish challenge for Hartley

With five races in as many weeks in different parts of the world, Bridgitte Hartley returns home to the 2018 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon next weekend hoping to bag a first SA K1 River Marathon Championship title.

Hartley’s international jet-setting started with a bronze medal at the ICF Sprint World Championships at the end of August. She then went to the Nelo Summer Challenge and the ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships in Portugal.

She returned home to win the VKB Liebensbergvlei Marathon after which she jetted to Ireland where she finished third in the Irish Coast Paddling Championships last weekend.

A bit of recovery time is on the cards for the three-time Olympian.

“I am definitely going to take a couple of days off!” she said with a relief. “It has been non-stop and I want to avoid being ill going into Fish.

“I want two or three days away from paddling to recharge and get myself prepared for the trip to Cradock.”

Hartley, who finished second at the 2016 Fish behind Abby Solms is looking to stamp her authority on river marathon racing. The 2018 Fish gives her the perfect opportunity as she searches for a first major marathon scalp.

“I am going to head down to Cradock early next week so I can get in a few days’ worth of tripping on the river.

“I am no river guru but last year in a K2 we managed to navigate ourselves down the river fairly well with only one swim at Cradock Weir.

“I got a lot of confidence from last year’s race so I hope that I can take that into this year’s event.”

Having a bit of time in her river boat in the Free State a few weeks ago was important for Hartley who has only had that preparation time for the Hansa Fish.

“I felt that I needed to race at the Liebenbergsvlei considering I have been in a sprint boat, marathon boat and a surfski as well over the past five weeks!

“It is going to feel a little bit strange next week but I will give myself enough time to prepare,” she added.

The Fish River often provides high drama with the race including some of the most exciting rapids in South African river racing. One of the most infamous is the Keith’s Flyover Rapid ten kilometres into the race and Hartley has made her decision about daunting obstacle.

“I don’t think that I am going to be shooting Keith’s this year,” she said. “For me I just don’t think it is something that I need to shoot.

“I feel that I am strong enough to gain back the time on the flat water that I might lose portaging around Keith’s.”

The ladies race is going to be one of the most open in a few years with the likes of Jenna Ward and Christie Mackenzie vying for the title. Hartley understands that 2017 K2 winner Ward will be a serious threat.

“Jenna is always an incredible competitor and will be tough competition.

“She has had a good year with a fourth at the World Marathon Championships and she is in some good form going into the Fish.

“It is going to be a great race and it’s exciting to see that there are a number of paddlers that can win the race,” Hartley added.

Vega hoping to build on previous Fish experience

As a very strong field of paddlers assembles for the 2018 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon, Spanish ace Kiko Vega has added his name to the impressive elite field that will start in A batch at Grassridge dam on Friday 5 October.

The blond former winner of the fabled Sella Descent has raced the Fish twice before, in addition to strong challenges at the Berg River Canoe Marathon, and says he will return to the Eastern Cape in the Euro Steel colours wiser to the demands of the race.

“It will be my third Fish and I think I already have the minimum amount of experience to try to perform well,” said Vega from his hometown in Asturias.

“I have special enthusiasm for the type of competition I experience in South Africa, and because the Fish is the South African K1 championship this year, it will be very difficult, but I like that.” He said.

Last year Vega partnered Siseko Ntondini to a storming sixth place finish in the K2 championship event, and is looking to substantially improve the 13th place finished he bagged on his maiden Fish in 2016.

Through a friendship that he has struck up with Johannesburg based Dabulamanzi Canoe Club paddler Brian Longley, Vega has been able to arrange his race entry, sponsorship and the backing of Set Kayaks for the race.

“I paddled the South African made Set Savage in the recent Sella Descent and it behaved perfectly,” he said.

Vega added that racing river marathons in South Africa excited him because the standard of competition was arguably the highest in the world at the moment.

“At this moment I think the level of kayaking in South Africa is the best, and that makes it more interesting for the competition and the public,” Vega noted.

“My goal is definitely to be competitive at the 2018 Fish,” he added.

He said that he was hoping to forge a stronger bond between the iconic event and the major events in Europe.

“Eurosteel is helping to unite European sports culture and the Sella Descent in particular with the kayak culture in South Africa,” said Vega.

Birkett taking 2018 Fish in his stride

Following a whirlwind few weeks that saw Andy Birkett claim the elusive K1 and K2 gold medals at the 2018 ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships, his focus has now shifted to the SA K1 River Championships at the Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon from 5-6 October.

Euro Steel’s Birkett emulated good friend and K2 partner Hank McGregor when he won his first K1 marathon title and followed that up with an impressive K2 crown to become the second South African to do the double at the same world championships.

Having travelled back from Portugal and relocated to East London with wife Nikki, Birkett has finally caught his breath and managed to think about the upcoming Fish, an event that he looks forward to on an annual basis.

“Well I ordered my boat for Fish a week ago so I have started thinking about it,” he quipped from his new home in Nahoon. “I have only paddled once since Portugal and I have been sick but I will get my preparations started.

“We race so much that I don’t think that it will be an issue being ready for Fish and I look forward to a weekend in Cradock with the family, it’s such a great vibe!”

The much-publicised ‘bromance’ between Birkett and McGregor could take an interesting turn in Cradock in a few weeks as both will be hoping to get one over the other in the dash for the line; the racing will be hard but light-hearted.

“It is going to be such an awesome race against Hank. I am going to give him a lot of grief and abuse on the river and I’m sure he is going to give it straight back to me!

“We don’t get to race too many river races anymore so I am looking forward to getting back onto the river.

“There are also going to be some other tough competitors there. Stu Maclaren, Kenny Rice and Jasper Mocké are all in great form so it will be a tough race for sure,” Birkett added.

With the national K1 river championships and a first K1 Fish River Canoe Marathon title on the line, one would suspect that Birkett would be determined to win in Cradock, however the new father is not putting any pressure on himself.

“I set myself a really big goal to win at marathon worlds – that was my main focus so I won’t be disappointed if I don’t win at Fish.

“I am definitely going to go there and race as hard as I can but if that isn’t good enough, I am fine with that,” Birkett commented.

Despite the relative lack of river racing, Birkett has been spending a lot of his time broadening his paddling skills and he will continue to branch out as much as he can.

“I never want to be a paddler that paddles one discipline,” he explained. “There are so many different aspects to our sport that I try and do as much as I can whether it be river racing, flat-water marathon racing or surfski paddling, I want to try and do as much as possible.”

Social vibe very much the heart of the Hansa Fish

As the countdown continues to the 2018 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon on 5 and 6 October in the Eastern Cape town of Cradock, the massive field will be largely made up of recreational paddlers, for whom the 82 kilometres of paddling is as much about the social atmosphere as it about the challenges of completing the marathon.

For the social paddlers, and for the droves of varsity students who make this event an annual pilgrimage, the unique ‘Pimp My Ride’ competition is an opportunity to get involved in the social fun of the event, and stand a chance of winning the coveted prize of the combined bodyweight of the winners in beer.

Predictably enough a popular hit with the students, the competition requires aspirants entrants to decorate their kayaks, and dress up in fancy dress to reflect a different theme every year.

This year the organisers have announced a theme of “Cowboys and Indians”, which is sure to see stetsons replacing traditional paddling caps as the vogue headgear of choice on the river.

Complicating the issue for the serious challengers is the issue that the competition is judged by a handpicked group of locals who observe both days of the race, up to and including efforts at Cradock weir in the final twenty minutes of the race.

No matter how elaborate the decorations to the kayaks and the individual fancy dress outfits are, they need to survive the rigours of the two days on the river to give themselves a chances of winning the approval of the stealthy judges.

Two years ago, the winning crew of Rhodes students launched an controversial appeal claiming that the combined weights of each paddler, plus their kayak and all their waterlogged equipment, was the amount of beer that they should win.

In a case that looked set to challenge the country’s top legal minds, the winners eventually agreed that the volume of beer they had won would be limited to their combined bodyweight only.

The theme pervades all aspects of the popular weekend, running like a common thread through the road trips to and from Cradock, the racing itself, and the well-supported parties on the Friday and Saturday evenings.