Andy Birkett set the pace on the first day of the Dusi Canoe Marathon on Thursday, with Sbonelo Khwela, background, hanging on to come home in second place. In the women’s race, favourite Abby Solms secured a 12-minute lead. Picture: GAMEPLANE MEDIA/ANTHONY GROTE
Andy Birkett set the pace on the first day of the Dusi Canoe Marathon on Thursday, with Sbonelo Khwela, background, hanging on to come home in second place. In the women’s race, favourite Abby Solms secured a 12-minute lead. Picture: GAMEPLANE MEDIA/ANTHONY GROTE

Three-time defending champion Andy Birkett blew the field away in the opening stage of the Dusi Canoe Marathon, covering the 42km trek from Camps Drift to Dusi Bridge in 2hr 40min 44sec, giving the six-time champion a more than five-minute lead over second man home Sbonelo Khwela.

Eight-time world canoe marathon champion Hank McGregor had to make do with third spot after a blunder an hour in at Musson’s Weir. The Euro Steel-Kajak Centre Ace, who won the K1 title in 2005, is more than 10 minutes off the pace.

Euro Steel’s Birkett was in a hurry to stamp his class on the three-day race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. He and Khwela opened up a gap over the chasers at the opening portage of the day at Campbell’s Farm and at the put-in at Geoff’s Road. At the end of the Guinea Fowl portage Birkett had gained a 20-second advantage and never looked back.

"I couldn’t have asked for a better day at the office. Being the defending champion brings added pressure and I’m just happy with the way things stand," said Birkett.

"I’m a bit surprised that I came home alone. To put a big lead over my two main rivals is very satisfying, but it’s still early days, we have to still navigate two stages covering some 90km and anything can happen on a temperamental river that can skittle the best-laid plans. "

Euro Steel-Red Bull’s Khwela, who won the K2 title with Birkett in 2016, was feeling upbeat despite the big deficit.

"Andy owned proceedings for sure and he showed why he is the man to beat. I gave it my best and it wasn’t enough. But I’ll be aiming to close the gap, and if I can do that and say, get to within a minute of him, then game on come the final leg on Saturday.

"I need to make it happen when we are portaging; running with the boat on my shoulder is my biggest weapon ."

McGregor has his work cut out. "I’m always going to try and win, but in a race like this where we have to portage more times than I care for, hurts my cause.

"My paddling schedule puts me on the back foot for the Dusi, but enough with the excuses, Andy looks set to make it win number seven. I’ll be gunning for Sbonelo over the next two days in a bid to get the runners-up medal again."

In the women’s race, pre-race favourite Abby Solms is set for her first K1 success after opening up what appears to be an insurmountable 12-minute lead over chief rival and Euro Steel teammate Bridgitte Hartley. Solms finished 42nd overall in 3:19:46, while Hartley clocked 3:31:45 in 74th place.

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