The tough shore break at Salt Rock made the start of the final stage of the Gara Dolphin Coast Challenge heavy going for most paddlers. Pictures: Anthony Grote/ Gameplan Media

Durban – With their sights firmly set on the upcoming World Marathon Champs K2 title, the crew of Hank McGregor and Andy Birkett delivered a masterclass to claim the two-day 43km Gara Dolphin Coast Challenge title on Sunday.

The Euro Steel/Fenn pair banked a tidy two minute overnight lead on the first stage from Pirates SLC in Durban to uMdloti and then more than doubled their lead on the final leg from Salt Rock to uMdloti on Sunday, earning them the KZN double ski title in the process.

McGregor and Birkett, who are currently the number one and two ranked flatwater marathon paddlers in the world, have struck up a successful K2 combination and friendship that has taken them to the FNB Dusi crown and the SA Marathon K2 title amongst several others in recent months.


"It was the perfect way to wrap up our preparations for the World Champs," beamed McGregor. "Racing surfski really helps to mix up the training and keep it fun, so the race suited us perfectly."

Birkett is a relative surfski novice when compared to McGregor, and revelled in the fast downwind conditions on Sunday.

"Andy was whooping and yodelling on some of the big runs, so it was really great to share that together," said McGregor.

The pair has struck up a strong bond since their Dusi triumph, and it clearly helps their performance together.

"We are really enjoying each other's company and I think it shows in our performance," said Birkett, who had to be ushered across the finish line at the end of the first stage because he was so busy laughing at McGregor getting dumped in the shore break.


The race was held in tricky blown-out conditions on the first stage and in superb following seas on the final stage, with the final stage start at Salt Rock proving to be a formidable obstacle, as the crunching shore break took its toll on many of the surfski crews.

The final result was moulded by the race officials as two of top four crews, Matt Bouman and Phillip Smith and the pairing of Barry Lewin and Bevan Manson, were disqualified for breaking the rules governing life jackets in surfski races on the first stage, leaving Luke Nisbet and Gene Prato solidly in second, and Masters Herman Chalupsky and Colin Simpkins in third.

The women's race fell impressively to the combination of the current women's surfski world champion Hayley Nixon and her young partner Christie Mackenzie, holding off a spirited charge from Nikki Birkett and Sabina Lawrie, who actually got to the final stage finish before the winners, thanks to the reversed order start of the second stage.


McGregor heaped praise on the event organisers for taking the far-sighted decision to shorten the race, to make it more accessible to average paddlers.

"It falls in line with a global trend in surfski to make races around 20 to 26 kilometres in length each day.

"We saw a good growth in the field for this year's race because it was more do-able than the old longer distances and suited the weekend warriors a lot more," he said.


SUMMARY OF RESULTS
GARA DOLPHINS COAST CHALLENGE
1 Andy Birkett/Hank McGregor 1:20:46.99 1:11:57.86 2:32:44.86 
2 Luke Nisbet/Gene Prato 1:22:42.73 1:15:48.11 2:38:30.84 
3 Herman Chalupsky/Colin Simpkins 1:28:55.54 1:20:00.62 2:48:56.16 
4 Zoog Haynes/Lance Howarth 1:30:51.52 1:18:44.27 2:49:35.79 
5 Quinton Rutherford/Malcolm Carey 1:30:29.53 1:23:00.63 2:53:30.16 
6 Brett Hadiaris/Ross Fountain 1:34:55.61 1:19:55.82 2:54:51.43 
7 Tyron Maher/Clinton Cook 1:26:21.04 1:29:20.70 2:55:41.74 
8 Oliver Burn/Matt Gunning 1:36:38.82 1:22:53.34 2:59:32.16 
9 Michel De Rauville/Luke Symons 1:33:42.97 1:27:26.34 3:01:09.31 
10 Steve Cohen/Brad Pearse 1:39:48.74 1:28:13.07 3:08:01.81 
11 Stretch Struwig/Mike Stevens 1:42:08.55 1:26:33.72 3:08:42.28 
12 Greg Worthington/Justin Wenke 1:43:03.58 1:26:55.38 3:09:58.96 
13 Heinrich Van Rooyen/Theo Smit 1:39:26.40 1:30:50.30 3:10:16.70 
14 Shadrack Mkhize/Craig Webster 1:41:24.92 1:29:34.18 3:10:59.11 
15 Billy Harker/Rex McGregor 1:42:23.40 1:29:48.29 3:12:11.69 
16 Dirk Barnard/Juan Maree 1:41:58.30 1:31:26.84 3:13:25.14 
17 Dave Harker/Marc Descoins 1:42:14.16 1:32:00.43 3:14:14.59 
18 Anton Fouche/Linton Hope 1:41:10.81 1:33:45.64 3:14:56.45 
19 Travis Wilkinson/Ross Poacher 1:44:33.50 1:31:15.17 3:15:48.68 
20 Hayley Nixon/Christie Mackenzie 1:45:31.62 1:30:31.81 3:16:03.43 

WOMEN
1 Hayley Nixon/Christie Mackenzie 1:45:31.62 1:30:31.81 3:16:03.43 
2 Nikki Birkett/Sabina Lawrie 1:47:22.20 1:37:03.86 3:24:26.06 

SINGLES 
1 Malcolm Pitt 1:44:18.86 1:30:55.80 3:15:14.66 
2 Lee Furby 1:46:27.48 1:29:29.09 3:15:56.57 
3 Guy Collyer 2:00:40.79 1:47:04.88 3:47:45.67 
4 Craig Thompson 2:01:01.50 1:47:35.68 3:48:37.19 
5 Vernon O'Connell 2:09:52.35 1:48:43.23 3:58:35.58 
6 Ray Van Der Poll 2:05:31.72 1:53:18.55 3:58:50.27 

The Mercury