Cradock — Paddlers from every corner of SA will converge on the Karoo town of Cradock for the 37th Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon, which gets under way from Grassridge Dam on Friday and finishes at Cradock Sports Grounds on Saturday.
This year, the race will double as the SA K1 River Marathon Championships, underscoring the high regard paddlers and administrators have for the two-day, 82km event.
The battles for the various national age-group titles are always tightly contested and, looking at the sharp end of the women’s and men’s fields, the racing will be red-hot until the finish on Saturday.
Seven-time winner Hank McGregor returns to his happy hunting ground.
The veteran has not had much time in his river K1 this year — or in a K1 at all, in fact — but with years of knowledge and a competitive edge like no other he will be a formidable paddler to watch.
Chasing McGregor will be his Euro Steel teammate and K2 partner Andy Birkett, who has won the last two K2 Fish River races, but is still missing that coveted K1 crown.
Birkett’s form in 2018 has been exemplary and he could well take home the national crown and a maiden Fish singles title on Saturday.
Among the other men’s contenders are the likes of Jasper Mocké, who paddled to a third at the recent ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships, and Stuart Maclaren.
Mocké is a fierce competitor, so it will be exciting to see how he navigates the big rapids on day one and whether he can keep up with what is probably going to be a blistering pace at the front.
Maclaren represented SA at the recent Marathon World Championships in a K2 but his ability in a K1 must not be underestimated. He has spent a lot of time playing second fiddle to the top paddlers and will be hoping the Fish can give him an opportunity to break into the big time.
A dark horse in the fight for a podium spot could be Under-23 ace Alan Houston.
The Euro Steel and Maties paddler was sharpening his skills at the Pre-Fish a few weeks ago and might just cause an upset if the two days go according to plan.
In the women’s event it could be a two-horse race to the finish with Bridgitte Hartley and Euro Steel teammate Jenna Ward fighting it out for the title.
Both have never won a K1 title at the Fish and have been in good form in 2018, so the race should be exciting to watch.
Hartley, who won a bronze medal at the Canoe Sprint World Championships in August, has improved her river skills from the last K1 race at the Fish and said she is looking forward to the challenge.
Ward’s form at the Marathon World Championships recently, where she finished fourth in the women’s K1 race, will give her confidence in the showdown.
The 48km and 36km stages will test all the paddlers with exciting rapids and weirs to negotiate throughout, with close to 1,000 paddlers entered, many of them in K2 and K3 craft, in addition to competitive paddlers entered in K1s.
Stage one takes paddlers 48km from Grassridge Dam to below Knutsford.