The conclusion of day one of the N3TC Drak Challenge, in partnership with FNB, couldn’t have been more different for the men’s and women’s leader boards as Andy Birkett romped home while there is almost nothing separating the top five ladies, despite Jenna Ward taking line honours.
On a truncated day due to the current ‘green drought’ being experienced throughout KwaZulu-Natal, the men’s race started as the much-anticipated two-man tussle between Euro Steel team mates and good friends Andy Birkett and Hank McGregor putting the rest of A Batch to the sword.
The pre-race favourites lived up to their billing as they swapped the lead regularly throughout the contest until Birkett broke free just in the tricky Gorge section after McGregor broke a paddle, giving Birkett a sniff of the stage win.
This was all Birkett needed to push to the finish, however it was behind him that the drama was unfolding as McGregor, struggling with his damaged paddle, capsized in Glenhaven rapid, dropping him from first to fifth with local lad and Euro Steel/Varsity College athlete Stew Little moving into second, with Euro Steel’s Siseko Ntondini in third.
“I managed to get a lead of a few boat lengths after Scotstons (Bridge) which grew into about a forty metre gap going into the Gorge and then I looked behind me and Hank wasn’t there so I assumed that something had gone wrong,” the five-time defending champion Birkett said.
Birkett’s incredible record at the Southern Drakensberg classic proves that he can handle all conditions and with another short day with a lot of flat water ahead of him the bookies would be brave to bet against him.
“I wouldn’t say that I have mastered these conditions if you look at my boat!” he chuckled.
“Irrespective of the level of the river I just enjoy this river and having to find your lines through the rapids makes it exciting and you don’t get bored.
“It keeps you interested and on your toes the whole time; but despite that I think I made more mistakes today than any other Drak Challenge!”
It was a day to savour for young Underberg local Stew Little who has found himself wedged in between some esteemed company at the top end of the field.
“I have never been in a position like this in a major race so I am incredibly happy with where I am right now,” the Euro Steel/Varsity College youngster said.
“I’m not worried about catching Andy (Birkett), I’m more worried about Hank behind me! He’s an eleven-time world champion!”
McGregor is going to have to work hard on Sunday to leapfrog the three boats in front of him if he wants to finish second.
Euro Steel’s Ntondini had a brilliant day finishing in third, twenty seconds ahead of the under-rated Gandar while Under 18 race leader Evans is just two seconds behind Gandar.
In the ladies showdown defending champion and Euro Steel star Jenna Ward is just four seconds ahead of the race’s most decorated paddler Abby Solms.
Young Christie Mackenzie is just six seconds behind Solms while fourth place Bridgitte Hartley is 21 seconds behind Mackenzie and Nikki Birkett is just over a minute behind Hartley in fifth.
With such a tight race going into the second stage Ward is excited by the fact that there is going to be a real tussle to the line on Sunday.
“To have five ladies fighting it out is great to see and I know that I cannot afford to make any mistakes otherwise someone will pounce,” Ward said.
“Today was real cat and mouse stuff and I don’t think that final result did the racing justice, it could have been anyone’s stage.”
Ward has Solms breathing down her neck however she is happy with the position that she is in going into Sunday’s final stage.
“I much prefer being at the front and leading the pack,” she explained. “It means that I can stick to my gameplan and follow my own lines and worry about my own race.
“But with that said, one silly mistake and the other girls will go straight past so I just need to stay patient and be careful.”
In the age group tussles, Stew Little is the leading Under 23 man while Christie Mackenzie is leading the Under 23 ladies race.
In the junior age category David Evans holds the cards in the boys race while Caitlin Mackenzie is the top Under 18 girl.
Matthew Millward is in charge of the Under 16 boys race while Georgina Howard is the second Under 16 overall and first girl.
The second and final stage of the 2019 N3TC Drak Challenge takes paddlers from Callaway Bridge to the finish at Early Mist Farm.
SUMMARY OF RESULTS – N3TC Drak Challenge, in partnership with FNB, Stage One
1.Andy Birkett 1:21:43
2.Stew Little (U23) 1:24:35
3.Siseko Ntondini 1:25:42
4.Owen Gandar 1:26:02
5.David Evans (U18) 1:26:04
6.Hank McGregor 1:26:16
7.Banetse Nkhoesa 1:26:18
8.Maswenkosi Mtolo (U23) 1:26:20
9.Alan Houston (U23) 1:26:23
10.Kiko Vega (ESP) 1:26:25
1.Jenna Ward 1:35:48
2.Abby Solms 1:35:52
3.Christie Mackenzie (U23) 1:35:58
4.Bridgitte Hartley 1:36:19
5.Nikki Birkett 1:37:32
Under 23 Men
1.Stew Little 1:24:35
2.Maswenkosi Mtolo 1:26:20
3.Alan Houston 1:26:23
Under 23 Women
1.Christie Mackenzie 1:35:58
Under 18 Boys
1.David Evans 1:26:04
2.Hamish Mackenzie 1:29:06
3.Sam Butcher 1:29:24
Under 18 Girls
1.Caitlin Mackenzie 1:39:42
2.Amy Peckett 1:44:33
3.Georgina Howard (U16) 1:44:35
Under 16 Boys
1.Matthew Millward 1:33:25
Under 16 Girls
1.Georgina Howard 1:44:35