Birkett and Fenn, and Solms and Behn wrap up Dusi Canoe Marathon wins

Standing ovation: 14-time race winner Andy Birkett (front) and his young East London partner Matt Fenn celebrate crossing the line after winning the 2024 Dusi Canoe Marathon

Standing ovation: 14-time race winner Andy Birkett (front) and his young East London partner Matt Fenn celebrate crossing the line after winning the 2024 Dusi Canoe Marathon. Photo: Graham Daniel/Gameplan Media

Published Feb 17, 2024


Andy Birkett and Matthew Fenn, and Abby Solms and Jessica Behn did exactly what was expected on Saturday and duly wrapped up their 2024 Dusi Canoe Marathon titles – but for the men's winners, the stage from Inanda Dam to Durban nearly turned into a disaster.

For Birkett it was his 14th victory and takes the "Crown Prince" of the event to within one win of the remarkable record of 15 titles "Dusi King" Graeme Pope-Ellis achieved in the 1970s and 80s.

Team My Life's Msawenkosi Mtolo and Sbonelo Khwela ended up six minutes 14 seconds behind in second position in the men's race, but will take heart from the fact they kept the race leaders under pressure for the entire event.

The stars of the final day were third-placed Bongani Ntinga and Sandile Mtolo, who produced a blistering final stage. By recording the fastest time for Day 3 – fully five minutes quicker than that of Birkett and Fenn – they were able to finally break the deadlock in the race for the podium and relegate Banetse Nkhoesa and Siseko Ntondini to fourth – despite Nkhoesa and Ntondini recording the second fastest time of the day.

U23 winners Scott Little and Jeremy Maher ended fifth overall.

In the women's battle for the minor placings, Bridgitte Hartley and Hilary Bruss claimed second after losing four minutes to Solms and Behn over the final stage to end 14 minutes behind overall. Jenna Nisbet and Nix Birkett rounded out the podium 11 minutes further back.

Women's winners Abby Solms (front) and Jessica Behn were delighted to win the women's race at the 2024 Dusi Canoe Marathon. Photo: Graham Daniel/Gameplan Media

For Solms, this is her fourth victory and puts her up as one of the most successful women's Dusi paddlers in the history of the race. The late decision for the winner in 2016, 2017 and 2022 to team up with the matric schoolgirl proved to be a master stroke.

Behn, a pupil at Epworth school in Pietermaritzburg, is believed to be the youngest winner in the race's history and is clearly heading for a great future in the sport.

"I think each of my wins is pretty special in their own way, but Jess and my partnership was such a late decision," said Solms as she contemplated the victory. "We only decided mid December – so two months ago we would not have thought this could happen. For it to come together so quickly is unbelievable.

"I am so proud of Jess to probably be the youngest ever winner of the Dusi.

"Jess's partner had to pull out and I had not committed to another partner so it was a nice opportunity for me to get back in a boat and to be able to pass on some of my experience," added Solms.

While the women's champions enjoyed an uneventful cruise to the title in Durban on Saturday, Birkett and Fenn thought the victory had slipped from their grasp when they got lost on a small, insignificant portage around Five Fingers Rapid.

"After we jumped in at Tops (Needle Rapid), I thought I was driving well and I was not hitting many rocks," said Birkett after their win. "We had a few mishaps on Day 1 and Day 2 when we got some holes in the boat and took in quite a bit of water. So I thought maybe today it will go according to plan. We planned to have a conservative race and take no risks.

"Then at Five Fingers we heard it was a compulsory portage and we got so lost trying to find the river again. At one point we were bushwhacking and I said to Matt "We are stuffed, it's race over."

"We were literally leopard crawling through the undergrowth and throwing the boat over the top. But Matt was determined and said: "I can see the water, so we can get there."

"When we got going back in we did not know if the guys were actually ahead of us or not. Only when we got splits at Pumphouse did we know the guys were not ahead of us.

"But that is the Dusi – it throws all sorts of curveballs at you for three days," added a relieved Birkett.

Birkett won his first Dusi with Jason Graham in 2010 and has been the dominant force in the race since then, losing just once, in 2013 to Lance Kime in a singles year. He now has eight K2 victories with seven different partners, and six K1 wins. This was his 11th win in a row since 2014.

The 33-year-old Birkett is a former World Marathon Champion and current silver medallist, while his 22-year-old partner is the 2023 U23 World Surfski Champion, so the duo was always likely to dominate things on the long paddling stretches of the final two days.

Mtolo and Khwela will rue a mistake on Day 2, when their boat pegged onto the rocks below Gauging Weir and they spent about a minute getting going again. However, while that piece of bad luck gave Birkett and Fenn the opportunity to make what proved to be the decisive race-winning break, it seems unlikely it would have changed the final result.

In the mixed doubles race, Hank McGregor and his wife Pippa were simply too strong for the rest of the field and they cruised home to a decisive 21-minute victory over Brad Boulle and Emma Hatfield. The McGregor couple ended 16th overall and were the first sub veteran crew home.

While Mtolo and Khwela will be unhappy to have lost a tough race overall, they did make a piece of history when they earned the first ever John Oliver Dusi Series medals. The series combines four pre-Dusi events and the Dusi itself, and rewards paddlers who complete all five races with a medal that honours long-time canoeing official and current Dusi timekeeper, John Oliver.



1 Andy Birkett / Matthew Fenn (2:28:02; 2:26:37; 2:24:55) 7:19:35

2 Msawenkosi Mtolo / Sbonelo Khwela (2:27:36; 2:32:19; 2:25:53) 7:25:49

3 Bongani Ntinga / Sandile Mtolo (2:32:44; 2:35:12; 2:19:41) 7:27:38

4 Banetse Nkhoesa / Siseko Ntondini (2:32:48; 2:35:11; 2:22:33) 7:30:32

5 Scott Little / Jeremy Maher (2:35:16; 2:34:23; 2:23:00) 7:32:40


1 Abby Solms / Jessica Behn (3:00:14; 2:54:20; 2:38:27) 8:33:02

2 Bridgitte Hartley / Hilary Bruss (3:09:37; 2:55:16; 2:42:44) 8:47:38

3 Jenna Nisbet / Nix Birkett (3:16:28; 3:02:10; 2:39:57) 8:58:37

4 Amy Hulett / Neriyah Dill (3:23:01; 3:14:05; 2:56:28) 9:33:35

5 Shannon Parker-Dennison / Nosipho Mthembu (3:27:02; 3:17:24; 2:57:17) 9:41:44


1 Hank Mcgregor / Pippa Mcgregor (2:54:11; 2:47:18; 2:28:19) 8:09:50

2 Bradley Boulle / Emma Hatfield (3:00:52; 2:53:25; 2:37:26) 8:31:45

3 Dave Mckenzie / Helen Buley (3:16:32; 3:05:54; 2:50:20) 9:12:47

4 Abbey Hackland / James Hackland (3:24:14; 3:19:35; 2:55:56) 9:39:46

5 Menzi Mthembu / Maritsa Gouws (3:48:00; 3:34:13; 2:59:57) 10:22:11

Gameplan Media

Related Topics: