Paddlers’ prayers for overnight rain and a full river ahead of the start of the 2013 N3TC Drak Challenge were certainly answered as Under-23 world marathon champ Grant van der Walt and ÔÇ£Fisher KingÔÇØ Len Jenkins led the rest of the significantly reduced field along the heaving Umzimkulu River on the opening day of the two-day affair on Saturday afternoon.
As paddlers rose early on Saturday morning any doubts that may have existed when they went to bed on Friday evening as to whether a full opening day’s racing would be possible due to a low river level were soon dispelled as news spread like wildfire that the river had flooded overnight and organisers were forced to delay the start in order to access the safety of participants.
After limiting participation to only A grade paddlers and disallowing any junior competitors from taking part, racing finally got underway at 11am and after 26 kilometres of tough, yet exhilarating racing it was van der Walt who claimed the narrowest of victories over Jenkins and will take the psychological advantage with him going into Sunday’s second and final stage.
ÔÇ£Today was amazing. It was such incredible fun and it was great to have won the stage as well,ÔÇØ said van der Walt. ÔÇ£We had tripped the river yesterday and it was pretty low so I was a bit sceptical last night, especially with only 20mm predicted for last night.
ÔÇ£After 80mm last night though today it was pumping and I was definitely pretty relieved.ÔÇØ
After a slow and steady first few kilometres Van der Walt soon found himself at the front of the men’s race and looking good to take the stage victory however a momentary misunderstanding at the takeout for the compulsory portage around the notorious Black Murray rapid cost him his 30-second lead which saw Jenkins put in at the bottom first and soon establish a healthy lead himself.
ÔÇ£Fortunately I was able to close the gap again within a kilometres or so and Len and I worked together from there until we were about a kilometer from the finish. That’s when Len really took up the pull and upped the pace,ÔÇØ said Team Best 4 Kayak Centre’s van der Walt.
ÔÇ£We switched lines quite a few times and were having a good battle and as we came up to the line I managed to pull up on his inside and sneak across the line first.
ÔÇ£The gap is obviously insignificant and my brother (Brandon) is not far behind us so with not much racing happening in the first hour tomorrow there’s a good chance he’ll catch us so it may well be a three way dice towards the line.
ÔÇ£A lot can obviously happen tomorrow and the real racing will probably only start in the gorge but hopefully I can get a bit of a gap a little way before the finish but if it comes down to an end sprint then I’m definitely up for that as well,ÔÇØ he added.
Having set the fast time on day two in 2012 and never won a major singles river title van der Walt has some extra motivation going into the final stage to push for a top of the podium finish. However, having finished second for two years in a row behind Hank McGrergor, Len Jenkins will undoubtedly be just as hungry for the win.
ÔÇ£No one ever wants to come second. Len’s probably pretty tired of being the bridesmaid at the Drak and I’m sure would love to win tomorrow but not as much as I do,ÔÇØ said van der Walt.
ÔÇ£I really want to win this one. It’s obviously not going to be easy but I’m certainly going to give it my all. I’m not here for a green salad, I definitely want that gold medal!ÔÇØ he added.
Despite having been narrowly pipped across the line Jenkins was happy with his performance and is looking forward to putting in a big effort on Sunday.
ÔÇ£It was such a fantastic level and it was so much fun out there,ÔÇØ said Jenkins. ÔÇ£With there being so much water it just keeps pushing you along and if you hit a rock you really take a pounding so luckily I didn’t make any mistakes today.
ÔÇ£It would have been nice to have won today but it doesn’t really matter, it all comes down to tomorrow.ÔÇØ
ÔÇ£Grant is really fit at the moment but hopefully we have more of the same in terms of water tomorrow and we can have a really good race,ÔÇØ he added.
Van der Walt’s younger brother, Brandon, put in a stellar closing few kilometres to narrow the gap on the leading pair to just 20 seconds and should he have a strong start to the second stage could well find himself back in the running for the title let alone solidify a deserved podium position.
ÔÇ£It would be great to catch the guys but at this level I definitely think it’s easier to be caught than it is to catch someone so tomorrow will be very tough,ÔÇØ said Van der Walt.
Jacques Theron rounded out the top five whilst Oliver Burn claimed a commendable tenth, forcing multiple Drak winner Ant Stott out of the top 10.
Team Best 4 Kayak Centre’s Abby Adie claimed a handy thirty-three second lead over team mate and defending champ Robyn Kime with South Coast surfski star Michelle Burn (ne├® Eder) claiming third spot after the opening stage.
ÔÇ£I had such a brilliant day,ÔÇØ said Adie. ÔÇ£I had a swim a little way above Black Murray which gave Robs (Kime) the lead but when I got to Black Murray I could see her putting in and she must have had a swim shortly afterwards because before I knew it I’d caught her and then it became more a matter of survival than anything else.
ÔÇ£It’s quite tough to close a gap on at this level but mistakes also happen so easily and with so much water they can cost you so much more than usual so tomorrow is all about making as few mistakes as possible,ÔÇØ she added.
With the raging Umzimkulu’s assistance both the men’s and women’s stage records with van der Walt beating the men’s record, set in 2004 by Len Jenkins, by more than eight minutes whilst Adie smashed the women’s record by almost 13 minutes.
With more rain potentially on the cards for Saturday night paddlers would have been holding their breathe ahead of the start of Sunday’s second stage. The 20th anniversary of the race is however shaping up to mirror the inaugural edition of the race in 1994 where similar high river levels and attrition rates were recorded.
Day two of the N3TC Drak Challenge was set to start at Swartberg bridge at 7am and ends 38km later at Hopewell Farm.
Day One results
1 Grant van der Walt (Under-23) 1hr 15min 22sec
2 Len Jenkins 1.15:23
3 Brandon van der Walt (U23) 1.15:44
4 Donavan Wewege (U23) 1.15:56
5 Jacques Theron 1.16:39
6 Shaun Griffin 1.18:03
7 Carl Folscher 1.18:05
8 Lance Kime (U23) 1.18:51
9 Murray Starr (U23) 1.18:52
10 Oliver Burn 1.18:54
1 Abby Adie (U23) 1.23:06
2 Robyn Kime (U23) 1.23:39
3 Michelle Burn 1.26:29
4 Jen Theron 1.27:08
5 Brittany Petersen (U23) 1.33:34
Under 23 Men
1 Grant van der Walt 1.15:22
2 Brandon van der Walt 1.15:44
3 Donavan Wewege 1.15:56
Under 23 Women
1 Abby Adie 1.23:06
2 Robyn Kime 1.23:39
3 Brittany Petersen 1.33:34