Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon
South Africa, 2012


by Josh Kippin
© 2012 Josh Kippin
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Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon

The Fish River Canoe Marathon is similar to the Avon Descent in that it is a two day marathon on a whitewater stretch of river. However, the Fish has more people, more continuous white water that is generally less technical than the rocky 'one-good-line' rapids of the valley and a handful of portages around weirs giving the opportunity to stretch your legs. 

The distance is approximately 82km over the two days, but because of the speed of the water this means it is about 3hrs Day One and 2hrs Day Two for the fastest and a bit more for those of us who are mere mortals. The South African paddlers have to undergo quite an extensive series of races to qualify for the race at all, but as internationals we did not need to complete these and were welcomed with open arms with people from all over the place offering us assistance.

The team that we took over consisted of a great mix of people with a shared passion for paddling and good senses of humour, which made for eventful dinners and hilarious car trips. Paddling we had Andrew, Darryl, Graeme, James, Jenni, Josh, Mark, Michael and Kevin who was organising the trip. Our portable cheer squad consisted of Cindy, Emily and Nat, who kindly drove the cars and cheered us on at different sections along the race.

After settling ourselves in at the accommodation at Cradock, we had two days to learn (or at least see) as much of the race route as we could. We managed to cram in most of it, tackling the entirety of Day 1 and the end of Day 2 so there would be a few surprises on race day, but not too many.

The race starts with batches of 60 at ten minute intervals, they had A-batch through to Q-batch and about 800 something boats starting on the dam. This start is a Le Mans style start where you run to your boat on the beach and jump in and get going. At the dam wall there is a difficult but surmountable 1km portage, that none of us were quite physically or mentally prepared for. Physically, because it is awkward to attempt a run or even a light jog with a boat on your shoulder and mentally, because the South Africans do it so well they really highlighted how terrible we were at it. 

From here it is all fun and games with major rapids like 'Double Trouble' (a tricky weir, with a very very large stopper at the bottom) and 'Toast Rack' (a low bridge requiring you to put your head on your knees and still just scrape the concrete with your head) providing some novelty to those unschooled in the Fish River. With numerous weirs on the river, there are a handful of portages to get around them, but many have chutes built in so that you can eliminate a portage and stay in your boat (no guarantees). Keith's Flyover is quite a hefty rapid where the river narrows to just shorter than a K1. If you can do the maths this means that if you swim, which odds are you will, and you can't keep your boat straight, it is likely to get a bit broken and more so for the K2s and K3s. We all had a go in practice on Mark and Kevin's PRS's. There were a couple of successful attempts and a few that ended a little bit wetter, but watching the top guys and girls go down, it looked effortless one run and then diabolically terrible the next, so we all agreed to portage it in the race, given it was only 7km in and we had travelled about 10,000km to get there.

Virtually the whole river is flowing and there are only swirly flat sections where the water is backed up by a weir, making the time fly and forcing the mind to be on high alert, because there are no restful pools in between rapids. 

The second day is a bit more sedate with some longer flat(ish) sections but it is also quite a bit shorter so the pace is hotter than the previous day. Start on Day 2 is in 'lapsed time' for those finishing within half an hour of the leader, allowing the race to keep its form at the pointy end. Both Josh and Darryl qualified for this, and didn't have to face the batch starts like most of the field, which by all accounts was quite an experience involving a lot of pushing and shoving and ducking out of the way of swinging paddle blades. With a few weirs and rapids on the second day, Cradock Weir is about 4km from the finish and is the staple for a good photo, regardless of how well you actually do it. 

At the finish, you are greeted by 'Bikini Girls, Beer and Powerade', so no matter how good or bad your race went your day just got better. They had excellent presentations for which a large majority of people stayed and there were charity auctions raising money for local communities. Being sponsored by a major South African beer company, Hansa, they put on a big afterparty involving live bands and DJ's that continued on into the small hours of the night.

As for the results:

Dicing it out for the entire race, multiple Avon winner Hank McGregor came second to Fish legend Len Jenkins, separated by about half a second in a sprint finish after five hours of racing.

Josh Kippin 16th (6th U23)- having a good race despite managing to split his thumb in half with a swiss-army knife the night before the race, finishing about 20 minutes off the leaders.

Darryl Long 64th (2nd Masters) paddling exceptionally well on the whitewater as was expected, even treating the crowd to an eskimo roll in his K1 at Cradock weir, but losing time on the portages.

Kevin White- 145th (7th Veteran) ­ paddling a PRS ski in his 11th Fish, posting a very fast time given he was in a slower boat than much of the field, highlighting the benefit of stability in a race like this.

Andrew Crowthers in 225th an exceptional effort being his first whitewater race in a K1, only limited by a couple of swims.

Michael Godwin 229th (11th U16) again, a very credible result having only limited whitewater experience in general, none the less in a K1!

Mark Hardie 231st (14th Veteran) on a PRS ski allegedly seconds faster than his time last year in the same boat, hot on the heels of Andrew and Michael in their K1s.

James Morfitt 323rd after having some paddle trouble, where he managed to lose his spare paddle early on day 1 and then make it all the way to Cradock weir (4km from the finish on Day 2) and lose his actual paddle, at which point he paddled to the finish with his hands! Suffice to say he lost a bit of time on those last 4km, but things like that strengthen your character right?

Jenni Bateman- 334th (13th Female) Great result for her first time in a K1, competing against a strong and experienced ladies field.

Graeme Godwin 414th (33rd sub master) posting a good result in his category quickly getting back into the swing of paddling K1s on white water.

The Hansa Fish River Marathon is a thrilling but manageable race with an outstanding atmosphere that is a must for everyone interested in marathon paddling. If your white water skills aren't quite up to scratch, there is always the option of paddling in a K2 or K3.

1 Discussing Lines at Soutpans Rapid

2 Organising our new boats before the race

3 Andrew on one of the portages, note the thorny bushes. These were everywhere and the thorns are long and strong enough to make it straight through the sole of your shoe. Watch your step!

4 Josh in practice at Soutpans Rapid

5 Kevin showing us how it's done at Cradock Weir, although he does make it look small.

6 Darryl, Josh and Andrew down Marlow's Chute

7 The Le Mans style start for A-batch

8 Mark Hardie at the infamous Keith's Flyover

9 Nine boats on the roof? No problem.

11 Coming into a portage around a weir

12 Taking in the beautiful scenery with no idea where we were going

13 Michael taming the whitewater  

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