Defending champs Andy Birkett and Jason Graham snatched the early psychological advantage when they edged out the dream team of Thulani Mbanjwa and Sbonelo Zondi in an end sprint on Thursday’s first day of The Unlimited Dusi canoe marathon.
After a battle which swayed back and forth between the “big three” men’s crews throughout the 37-kilometre first stage, Birkett and Graham reminded all of their immense paddling abilities as they powered across the line to claim a three second lead and a crucial mental edge.
“We’re really happy because we just had a really fun day today,” said Birkett, the younger member of Team Fun. “We had a really great race today and the fact that it’s so close at the front really makes things exciting!
“We got off to a good start and were just behind Hank (McGregor) and Len (Jenkins) over the first eight kilometres or so. We were actually quite surprised by how strong we felt in the boat and so we went quite hard at first but it was all quite tight still.
“Bungee (Thulani Mbanjwa) and Sbonelo (Zondi) were then really strong on the runs though and they came flying through on the portage and thankfully we were able to hang onto them a bit better than Hank and Len.
“We then caught them just before Cabbage Tree put-in and fortunately we were able to hold them off on the final sprint,” he added.ÔÇ¿ÔÇ¿ Birkett and Graham will be eager to open up an early lead on day two knowing the pedigree of the crews not far behind them and who will be hunting them down throughout the next two days of racing.
“We surprised ourselves quite a bit today with our paddling, which is great with tomorrow being a bit more of a paddling day but this isn’t exactly the day that counts so there’s still lots to be done,” said Graham.
“We’re here to have fun so it was awesome to have a bit of a sprint at the end there and I’m sure there’s going to be plenty more great racing over the two days,” he added.
A remarkable second place finish for Mbanjwa and Zondi after a day of multiple technical problems sees them still very much in the hunt despite their preferred running-orientated first day now behind them.
“We unfortunately had a terrible day today but we’re here now in second place so we’re still very happy,” said Mbanjwa. “We had all sorts of problems today which was a pity but everything considered, it was still a good day.
“At Musson’s rapid we damaged our rudder which cost us about a minute and also meant the top guys were gone. My seat then came loose and when we stopped to fix it I made a silly mistake and put it one notch too far back which really affected my driving after that.
“Then, once we caught the guys, Sbonelo’s seat broke and so we couldn’t sit straight and were really uncomfortable over the last few kilometres,” he added.
Day two brings with it a fresh start and Mbanjwa and Zondi will be hoping all their bad luck has now run out and they can focus on getting their historic title attempts back on track.
“We’ll try our best to push hard tomorrow and try to stay with Andy (Birkett) and Jason (Graham). Hank is also world marathon champ so they’ll be very strong tomorrow and anything can happen,” said Zondi.
“We’ll try open a gap over the first and second Saddle and then just see how the others go. If we don’t get ahead though we’ll just have to take things as they come.
“Tomorrow is the longest and scariest day with Hippo (rapid) and Thombi (rapid) so if it’s big it could be very interesting,” he added.
Knowing their own strengths and weaknesses and what lies ahead, Team Best 4 Kayak Centre’s McGregor and Jenkins will be satisfied with how their opening stage panned out and are by no means out of the contest either.
“We actually thought the gap would be a whole lot bigger so we’re very chuffed with how things went today,” said McGregor. “We shot the weir first but there is no hiding on the portages. Those hills seem to get steeper and tougher each year and we’re up against some phenomenal athletes.
“We’ll look to try and put pressure on the front two guys and close the gap as soon as possible tomorrow morning and then we’ll just take things from there,” he added.
After one of the performances of the day Craig Turton and Jasper Mocke powered their way to a solid fourth-place finish whilst Team Best 4 Kayak Centre ‘s Under-23 crew of Lance Kime and Kwanda Mhlope closed out the top five.
In the women’s race Robyn Kime and Abbey Ulansky (Team Best 4 Kayak Centre) put a shaky start behind them early on and blitzed their way to day one victory, finishing over 11 minutes ahead of their team-mates Abby and Alex Adie, in the process smashing the women’s day one record by over three minutes.
“Ernie Pearce is a bit of a curse for us. I’ve swum there the past two singles years and Robs (Kime) swam there in her last effort in a single and once again Robs had a bit of a spill there this year,” chuckled Ulansky.
“Fortunately it didn’t cost us too much time at all though and we managed to get things going again fairly quickly,” she added.
Having a flawless day after their initial incident and spurred on by the extra cash incentive of their team, the defending champs now look well set to claim another title come their arrival at Blue Lagoon in Durban on Saturday.
“We had to work really hard today but we’re really happy with how things went, other than our usual Ernie Pearce swim, and hopefully we can just keep it all going tomorrow,” said Kime.
“Its great to have a bit of a buffer but there’s still a long way to go and there’s still plenty that could happen.
“We are going to have to think about how we approach tomorrow quite carefully now because having finished 21st┬á today and there being the added incentive to finish in the top 20 overall we’re quite nicely positioned but we also need to be cautious enough and not make too many mistakes,” she added.
After a tough first day the Adie twins now have a lot of work to do if they are going to bring themselves back into the mix and challenge for the women’s overall spoils.
“We had a bit of a difficult one today. Alex was feeling quite flat and didn’t have it in the legs on the portages,” said Abby. “Obviously we would have hoped for the gap to have been a bit smaller but we’ll just have to refocus and start again in the morning,” she added.
“Robyn and Abbey have a lot of experience of racing at the top under their belt and this is just my first time so I definitely think that had a big impact on things today,” said Alex.
“It was a tough day for Abby having me struggling a little in the back, especially when she was feeling so good, but she was really good and super supportive,” she added.
In the hotly contested junior section it was Murray Haw and James Speed who crossed the line first ahead of fellow Maritzburg College youngsters Donavan Wewege and Murray Starr in the Under-18 boys category whilst Bianca Haw and Jordan Perk of Epworth opened up a seven-minute lead over Brittany Petersen and Kerry Shuter in the Under-18 girls race.
RESULTS (DAY ONE)
1 Andy Birkett/Jason Graham 2hr 36min 56sec
2 Thulani Mbanjwa/Sbonelo Zondi 2:36.59
3 Hank McGregor/Len Jenkins 2:38.28
4 Craig Turton/Jasper Mocke 2:41.16
5 Lance Kime/Kwanda Mhlope (U-23) 2:43.26
6 Shaun Rubenstein/Steve Farrell 2:44.34
7 Piers Crucikshanks/Mike Stewart 2:47.01
8 Lucas Mthalane/Mmeli Cele 2:47.57
9 Richard Cele/Nhlanhla Cele (U-23) 2:50.07
10 Shaun Biggs/Ben Biggs 2:51.14
1 Robyn Kime/Abbey Ulansky 2:59.33
2 Abby Adie/Alex Adie (U-23) 3:10.43
3 Debbie Germiquet/Carmen Blakeney 3:22.30
4 Bianca Haw/Jordan Peek (U18) 3:25.58
5 Tamika Haw/Jen Hodson 3:32.30
1 Lance Kime/Kwanda Mhlope 2:43.26
2 Richard Cele/Nhlanhla Cele 2:50.07
3 Siseko Ntondini/Tom Ngcobo 2:59.45
1 Abby Adie/Alex Adie 3:10.43
2 Bianca Haw/Jordan Peek (U18) 3:25.58
3 Brittany Petersen/Kerry Shuter (U18) 3:33.46
1 Murray Haw/James Speed 2:55.09
2 Donavan Wewege/Murray Starr 3:00.14
3 Banesti Nkhoesa/Sizwe Mhulo 3:04.45
1 Bianca Haw/Jordan Peek 3:25.58
2 Brittany Petersen/Kerry Shuter 3:33.46
3 Kate Arnott/Charlotte Lovemore 4:10.14