In the end, the Dream Team’s class and experience was telling, as Hank McGregor and Andy Birkett won a dramatic, 2018 Dusi Canoe Marathon at a canter on Saturday.
They cruised into Blue Lagoon with their rivals over a minute behind, after they had made a crucial decision to keep their splash covers on at Mango Rapid, while leaders Sbonelo Khwesa and Siseko Ntondini left theirs agape.
As they took on water from the rapid, McGregor and Birkett pounced, leaving them for dead. The exertions of the past few days showed when Birkett collapsed at the finish, and went to the medical tent for over an hour.
McGregor, who might have been paddling his last Dusi, was relieved and delighted, after putting holiday plans on hold for another tilt at the title. He chose Birkett and Blue Lagoon over Bali, and the smile on his face confirmed that.
“I am just relieved. We did it. The goal was to get to Durban first, and we did that. I am really chuffed to do it with a great mate and a fantastic partner. And to do it in front of my family, my son, and a fantastic crowd,” McGregor beamed.
The pair’s prowess on the water was such that they even opted out of shooting the dangerous Pumphouse Weir, and portaging around instead.
They lost 30 seconds on Khwela and Ntondini, but they were not fazed.
Your 2018 FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon champions! Hank McGregor and Andy Birkett pic.twitter.com/e1L3spdhPk
“I saw Sbonelo shooting it, and I could see Andy wanted to follow him. I told him to stick to the plan, because if we lost the race because of one silly mistake, we would have egg on our faces. We could always make up the time on the water,” a calm McGregor explained.
That clarity of thought was crucial in the end, and they could toast a victory that was expected, but certainly not as straightforward as some people had suggested it would be.
“This is the Dusi. There are no certainties, and we all came here to compete,” the second-placed Carl Folscher said, alongside his partner, Adrian Boros.
In third place, Khwela and Ntondini again learnt some lessons, and then resolved to come back and do it again. Winning the Dusi is a goal that they will not let go that easily.
“I am 30 now. Hank is still winning at the age of 40, so that tells me that time is on my side,” a philosophical Khwela said, after his mishap at Mango had literally sunk their chances. They had to stop and empty their boat, and watched on as the winners powered away.
In the women’s race, the Peek sisters did the same thing they had done on the first two days. They simply put their heads down, and concentrated on getting the job done.
“We pushed all the way over Burma, and it nearly broke me! But we then knew that it was a long hard push all the way to the end,” Jordan Peek
said with a sigh.
“We have sacrificed a lot. This is a lonely, hard sport,” sister Cana noted.
“You give up a lot of social life, and your family has to be involved. They deal with your mood-swings after a tough day of racing. It has been a tough time, and it is nice to know that it was all worth it. I am looking forward to celebrating together with the other girls,” the student said, looking along the table of podium finishers.
Well done to your second place finishers. Christie Mackenzie and Bridgitte Hartley! pic.twitter.com/VHr8RJfWqF
In second place, Bridgitte Hartley and Christie Mackenzie were almost broken by Burma Road, but gathered themselves to finish. Hartley collapsed at the top, while Mackenzie ran onto the bottom, before realising that her partner wasn’t there.
“That was the toughest day of racing I have ever done in my life,” Mackenzie puffed.
Hartley, who endured a tough finish last year, again suffered on day three.
“More than anything, I was cross with myself – I couldn’t believe it was happening again,” she bemoaned.
“I couldn’t get up, everything shut off. Luckily someone gave me a really cold Rehidrat, and that was really good. They threw water on me, and I ran down the hill, asking people if they had seen a girl running alone with a boat,” she said.
That she managed to gather herself, and then she and Mackenzie lifted themselves back into second, was testimony to their spirit, on a hot day in Durban.
The 2018 Dusi was yet another memorable affair, one which again emphasised that the river has no mercy. The Dream Team delivered on their promise, but many other hopes were dashed, on the three days from Maritzburg to Durban.