Making his intentions clear as he went in search of his seventh title at the annual race, Andy Birkett took a convincing lead on Thursday’s opening stage of the Dusi Canoe Marathon in KwaZulu-Natal.
Birkett and Sbonelo Khwela made an early break and opened a gap on the rest of the field, but Birkett was soon on his own up front after dropping Khwela at the first portage.
He gradually drew further clear, covering the stage in two hours, 40 minutes, 43 seconds (2:40:43) to stamp his authority as the title favourite.
“I expected to come across the line today with two or three other boats,” Birkett said.
“To run away from the others was something I really didn’t expect, but with that said, we had some good banter in the early stages and I love being back on the Dusi. It’s such an awesome river.”
Khwela was more than five minutes behind Birkett, crossing the line alone in second place, and he was another five minutes ahead of Hank McGregor.
Eight-time world champion McGregor snapped his paddle and was forced to navigate the water with one blade for a period.
While he was able to hold onto third position, McGregor was left with plenty of work to do over the next two days to catch the runaway leader.
In the women’s race, Abby Solms charged into a commanding lead as she targeted her maiden Dusi crown.
Solms completed the stage in 3:19:46, nearly 10 minutes ahead of teenager Christie Mackenzie, who earned second spot on the day.
Former Olympic sprint medallist Bridgitte Hartley, making her K1 Dusi debut, went out hard on the flat water at the start, but she was reeled in by Solms and Mackenzie after taking a swim, rolling her ankle and battling with a loose pedal in her boat during a baptism of fire.
“Bridgitte really blew us away from the start with her pace so it took me a while to settle down into a rhythm, but after that I think I had a flawless day which was satisfying,” Solms said.
The three-day river race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban will end on Saturday.