Despite the region being in the grips of a severe drought, a week of rains left the Mzimkulu River at an excellent medium level for the 2016 N3TC Drak Challenge that got underway on Saturday with two-time defending champion Andy Birkett gaining the slightest of advantages while “Drak Queen” Abby Solms demolishing the ladies field on stage one.
With a ten second margin separating Birkett and Euro Steel team mate Hank McGregor the margins remain slight with a number of paddlers breathing down their necks including the ever-green Len Jenkins with the 38km final stage coming up on Sunday.
“We knew before the race that there was a lot of depth in the field and today’s result just shows that,” Birkett said at the end of the opening stage.
“The first eight boats were all probably within a minute or two of each other and I think that is great for paddling and it is nice to race where there is a strong field and it is not just a two horse race.”
As the trio of Birkett, McGregor and Jenkins got away from the chasers a mishap between the two more experienced paddlers gave Birkett a window to get ahead and he obliged.
“In one of the lower rapids we were all together and I managed to just put the hammer down and get a boat length which I turned into a ten second lead – which isn’t really a gap.
“I wouldn’t count ten seconds as an advantage but it is more of a personal achievement managing to finish day one with a lead,” a circumspect Birkett added.
Despite trailing by the slightest of margins three-time winner McGregor understands the importance of staying out of trouble and the mishap with Jenkins was a mistake that he will try and avoid going into the second stage on Sunday.
“You make one mistake here and it can cost you like what happened today but tomorrow is a much longer stage and anything can happen.
“I don’t think that the gap is big and so we might come back together or we might not.
“I would have loved to have a zero second gap but as I was saying, one mistake, all of us make mistakes, and you can lose ten seconds quite easily,” a positive McGregor explained.
Owen Gandar finished fourth, with Under 23 Andrew Houston fifth. Michaelhouse schoolboy Jean van der Westhuisen once again revelled on the Mzimklulu, finishing the stage seventh overall.
The N3TC Drak Challenge has become a race dominated by Abby Solms and the first stage of the 2016 race was no different, even though the Euro Steel star she found herself under early pressure from a number of strong starters.
“I was surrounding by quite a few of the girls early on in the race but then I managed to just edge ahead and didn’t look back,” Solms said.
“That was the motto of the day for me, just get ahead and go hard and don’t look back.”
Despite having substantial knowledge of the route and the rapids the water level still meant that she had to keep her wits about her.
“There are too many rocks to make silly mistakes so I just kept my eyes forward on the top section and I had the advantage of an empty river with no guys in front of me so I didn’t have to slow down at all.
“I love the top section so much and I loved today, it was so fast and technical,” she added.
Paddling long sections by herself has become a trait for Solms over the years however it is an element of her race that she has embraced.
“I like to be out in front and have an open river to myself and the distance is perfect because I never have to slow down and just go hard from start to finish,” Solms explained.
Mac Squad’s Jenna Ward managed to limit the damage as much as she could when she came home in second place with the impressive Donna Tutton finishing in third place.
The second stage of the N3TC Drak Challenge takes place from the Swartberg Road Bridge to the finish at Hopewell Farm on Sunday 24 January.
SUMMARY OF RESULTS – N3TC DRAK CHALLENGE STAGE ONE
1.Andy Birkett 1:35.07
2.Hank McGregor 1:35.20
3.Len Jenkins 1:35.54
4.Owen Gandar 1:36.11
5.Andrew Houston (U23) 1:37.05
6.Thulani Mbanjwa 1:37.38
7.Jean van der Westhuyzen (U18) 1:37.39
8.Jasper Mocké 1:37.39
9.Greg Louw 1:37.52
10.Jakub Adam (CZE) 1:38.30
11.Ant Stott 1:38.31
12.Brandon van der Walt 1:38.32
13.Damon Stamp (U23) 1:39.03
14.Siseko Ntondini (U23) 1:40.04
15.Jason Graham 1:40.05
16.Alan Houston (U23) 1:40.06
17.Carl Folscher 1:41.26
18.Banetse Nkhoese (U23) 1:41.26
19.Sbonelo Khwela 1:41.27
20.Lucas Mthalane 1:43.41
1.Abby Solms 1:42.37
2.Jenna Ward (U23) 1:49.15
3.Donna Tutton 1:50.45
4.Cana Peek (U18) 1:54.31
5.Tamika Haw 1:59.57
6.Jane Swarbreck 2:01.25
7.Cathrine Atkinson (U23) 2:02.00
8.Lauren Felgate (U23) 2:03.47
9.Hayley Nixon/Arthur 2:07.34
10.Kate Swarbreck 2:10.48
Under 23 Men
1.Andrew Houston 1:37.05
2.Damon Stamp 1:39.03
3.Siseko Ntondini 1:40.04
4.Banetse Nkhoesa 1:41.26
Under 23 Women
1.Jenna Ward 1:49.15
2.Cathrine Atkinson 2:02.00
3.Lauren Felgate 2:03.47
Under 18 Boys
1.Jean van der Westhuyzen 1:37.39
Under 18 Girls
1.Cana Peek 1:54.31