Pietermaritzburg – Andy Birkett won his first Dusi Canoe Marathon in 2010, a K2 race, partnered by Jason Graham. Since then, he has not been defeated in a K2 race at the event and the only blemish on his record since that maiden win was in 2016’s K1 race when a rare mistake allowed Lance Kime to hold him off in the charge to the line.
Graham partnered Birkett again in 2012 and, in the intermediate K2 races, Birkett has had five different partners – Sbonelo Zondi, Kime, Hank McGregor, Nzimande Khumbalani and Dave Evans. This year, a seventh is added as Matthew Fenn joins his Euro Steel teammate in an all Eastern Cape pairing to chase Birkett’s 14th win, which will leave him just one short of the record 15 belonging to the “Dusi King” Graeme Pope-Ellis.
However, that record is not foremost in Birkett’s modest mind.
“Dusi was a different race when Pope was at his peak. There were way more variables and it’s a lot easier to win these days,” he said. “The boats, our equipment, the route and the organization has changed drastically through the years and considering what Pope achieved, he will always be the Dusi King.”
This year, the race changes again, with the start at Bishopstowe Hall, due to the river being polluted in Pietermaritzburg.
“I think it’s a nice change, as I believe events must evolve. It’s a bit shorter than the traditional first day’s paddle to Dusi Bridge, and the finish at Second Saddle also shortens the second day, which still finishes at Inanda Dam,” said Birkett. “That long, testing, energy sapping finish across the dam is always a tough mental challenge, and this year, paddlers will be somewhat fresher at that stage, meaning fewer mistakes on the drive to the line.”
Birkett was set to paddle with Dave Evans, his partner in his 2022 K2 win, but health problems forced Evans to withdraw, allowing Fenn to step in.
“Matt is also based in East London, allowing us to train together throughout the year. This is his first Dusi but he is an accomplished paddler, proving himself on our many long weekend paddles on the Gonubie River,” said Birkett.
Normally, Birkett enjoys some solid tripping on the Dusi route to sharpen his skills and create a mental plan of the race in his mind, but the recent heavy rains in KwaZulu-Natal have forced him to postpone his plans but is hoping to get some river time over the next couple of weeks.
“Despite knowing the race and the elements so well, there are always changes on the river and new race lines to consider. It comes down to knowing the river better,” he said.
Reflecting on his success and dominance in the race, Birkett remains modest. “Yes, I may have won all those times, but many of my wins have been close encounters and memorable battles in the charge to the line. Not much has separated me from the second finisher and I have huge respect for the calibre of the paddlers and athletes who give me a good go every year,” he said. “I still love the challenge of a race, and that’s what keeps me coming back. When my back gets too sore to carry my boat, I might throw in the towel, but anything can happen over the three days. One small mistake can see a new winner and I can get beaten.”
While many paddlers are resigned to another Birkett win this year, he does offer some hope and encouragement.
“Matt and I have had no river races as a doubles pair and thus have no pre-race form. That could be an advantage to us as it might lessen the pre-race favourite tag we will carry, but it will also give more seasoned and polished race partners the belief that they could take overall honours,” he said.