Paddlers from around the country converged on Cradock this past weekend as the arrival of the annual water release from Grassridge Dam coincided with the popular Pre-Fish two day race that officials starts the fortnight of fun that leads to the Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon on 7 and 8 October.
Houston brothers Andrew and Alan tussled for the men’s spoils throughout the two days of racing while the women’s field saw Abby Solms lead home 2012 London Olympic canoe sprint bronze medallist, Bridgitte Hartley.
“The Pre-Fish was really awesome,” says older brother, Andrew Houston. “It was really chilled and Alan and I paddled together the whole way so it was a really good tripping experience.”
“Being the older brother though, I made sure that when we got to the finish I line I had my nose in front,” he chuckles authoritatively.
Based at Stellenbosch University and having opted not to take part in much of the recently concluded Western Cape river marathon season, the pair used the Pre-Fish to get some much needed mileage under their belts ahead of next weekend’s Hansa Fish.
“Alan and I are fortunate enough that we mountain bike and run too, so come the end of the Dusi paddling season we hang up our paddles and hit the trails,” says Andrew.
“That does however mean that other than two days of the Berg River Canoe Marathon – which I did absolutely no training for – Pre-Fish was the first time I’ve raced since Dusi.
“It was great to get some mileage in the arms and spend some time on the water again as we’re really looking forward to this year’s Fish,” adds the Seed Co racer.
The order of the weekend was much the same for Euro Steel/Gara Racing Paddles’ Solms after she only recently traded in her well-used running shoes for some time in the boat.
“My focus this winter was on my first ever marathon at the Cape Town Marathon, so I haven’t really been in the boat much at all and certainly a lot less than the rest of the girls,” explains Solms.
“I took it quite easy at Pre-Fish this weekend as my main goal was just to get some distance into my arms and it was nice to do some mileage again.
“It was lots of fun and I guess the fact that I managed to have a bit of a clean run made it that much more enjoyable too.
“This weekend also gave me that little bit of confidence heading into Fish, which was nice, but I also definitely felt that I was down on strength compared to normal so I’m going to have to rely quite heavily on experience at this year’s Fish.”
Like the rest of the field, the recent Pre-Fish gave Solms a first glimpse of the newly built Baroda Weir at racing river level and the four-time Hansa Fish winner left Cradock giving the new obstacle two thumbs up.
“The new weir works really well,” says Solms. “There is a bit of a hole at the bottom but it certainly isn’t anything like the stopper wave at the bottom of Double Trouble!”
“The weir’s gradient isn’t all that steep, so you actually go down quite slowly at the top and have quite a bit of time to pick your line before you get to the hole at the bottom.
“There were a few who had a bit of a swim there this weekend but I don’t think there will be too many problems at all come Fish.
“I guess what may be a factor though – more for those in the batches than us at the front – is two boats heading down at the same time.
“If everyone is patient then everything should be fine though.”
Solms also believes one less portage on the second and final stage from just below Knutsford to Cradock Sports Complex will have a negligible impact on the length of time paddler’s spend in the boat.
The 26 year-old did however admit that the freshly constructed obstacle may add to excitement levels in the race for the finish line in Cradock.
“There is obviously now an extra obstacle to get through cleanly on day two, so it does increase the risk just a little for those that will be racing for position.
“The weir is nothing hectic but it does perhaps add a little extra excitement to the mix, especially for us girls as the women’s race will probably be all about the person who makes the least mistakes throughout the two days.”
The 2016 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon takes place from Grassridge Dam to Cradock Sports Complex on Friday 7 and Saturday 8 October.