Andy Birkett fit and ready for 10th Dusi title

Cape Town - Andy Birkett has virtually been “Mr Dusi” for the past decade, and the modest champion says he is in great physical and mental shape to challenge for his 10th title in the Dusi Canoe Marathon this week.

The Howick-born paddling sensation has won five K2 titles and four K1 crowns since 2010, but he won’t be found bragging about anything as he tends to leave his talking to the river.

Last year, he overcame the strong challenge of Sbonelo Khwela and Thulani Mbanjwa for the K1 title after lagging a bit on the first of the famous race’s three stages.

Those two rivals are racing together this week, while Birkett teams up with young Khumbulani Nzimande, who finished fourth in the solo format last year. This is due to paddling great Hank McGregor not being able to do the race with Birkett as K2 defending champions because of illness.

Birkett’s determination to add to his collection of medals is illustrated by the fact he took Nzimande to his home in East London for the past couple of months for training and bonding purposes.

“I am looking forward to the Dusi. I am injury-free and I am healthy, and I am grateful for that,” said Birkett on Monday.

“Khumbulani and I have trained well for two-and-a-half months solid in East London. He’s a great guy.

“I will be driving the boat this week, navigating the way, while he is at the back where you also have to be strong in running with the back being heavier to carry. The paddling will be 50/50 between us. I would not say that I am quietly confident of us winning the Dusi, but I am confident of us being competitive. Khumbulani has made big progress, considering he posted the fastest time on the second day of the Drak Challenge recently.”

Birkett, who also enjoys surfski and kite surfing when he’s not busy in a water purification business in the Eastern Cape, said he was not heavily affected by the fairly late removal of the iconic Burma Road portage option on the final stage on Saturday, for safety reasons.

“Whether Burma stays closed or is re-opened is okay with me. You know, my wife (Nicky) was held up at gunpoint during a race two years ago and that was very scary.

“The guys wanted to cut her finger off to get her wedding ring, but fortunately it came off. So, I understand the decision made by the organisers regarding Burma Road. No race is worth a human life.

“I know the organisers are still talking to chiefs in the area about the issue and the portage option could suddenly come back on the morning of the race - that’s the way the Dusi is - but you have to be strong in both paddling and running.”

The 29-year-old Maritzburg College old boy stressed that consistency was key in the Dusi.

“You have to try to have three strong days. You can’t have one good day and then one bad. It’s just stringing those three good days together that is most critical,” he said.

“Looking at the races that have happened in the build-up to Dusi, and the top positions in those, I would say that the boats of Banetse Nkhoesa and Msawenkosi Mtolo, and Ant Stott and Carl Folscher will be in the mix for the title this week, as will the Houston brothers, Alan and Andrew, and, of course, Khwela and Mbanjwa.

“I won’t be disappointed if we don’t win this week, as long as we gave ourselves a chance.”

Meanwhile, Dusi organisers have announced that the winning male and female K2 crews will again receive R25 000 this week, but a new incentive offers a R45 000 bonus based on the relative finish of the women’s race winners. Explained race committee chairperson Shane le Breton: “The performance of the winning women’s K2 is always assessed as a percentage of the winning men’s K2 crew’s time. Based on the last 10 years’ results, the winning women’s boat has finished at 116% of the winning men’s boat.

“The new incentive will be given to the winning women’s K2 if they finish in a time that is less than 114% of the overall winner.

“If it is 114% or rounded down to that percentage point, it will be shared. If the women’s winners are 115% or more behind the overall winners, then the men’s K2 will get the incentive.”