Knutsford - Despite a men's and women's race that went down to the wire, it is the pre-race favourites Hank McGregor and Wayne Jacobs and Christie Mackenzie and Bridgitte Hartley who hold minute advantages going into Saturday's second and final stage of the 2019 Fish River Canoe Marathon.
The race saw early pace-setters McGregor and Jacobs in a flat-out tussle with two other boats in the shape of Simon van Gysen and Kenny Rice as well as Stuart Maclaren and Jasper Mocké.
With a late withdrawal of Ryan Louw, his brother Greg teamed up with Philip Smit and the pair put in a solid performance to finish fourth on the day.
For the McGregor/Jacobs duo, it was Mocké and Maclaren who would eventually provide the biggest threat and took them all the way to the line in an exciting end sprint that ended with McGregor claiming another stage one title.
"It was a great day out there today, Wayne was strong the whole way," Euro Steel's McGregor said. "We made, well I made, one or two small errors but otherwise we got here clean and happy to be leading the Fish.
"Tomorrow we just have go out and try and not make any mistakes!"
Jacobs echoed McGregor's sentiments about the day's paddling but with just one second in it between them and Maclaren and Mocké Saturday's racing is going to be on a knife-edge.
"We had a lot of fun out there today and got through Keith's (Flyover) and Soutpans no problem but looking ahead we know that is going to be close racing tomorrow!"
Maclaren and Mocké will take a lot of confidence into the second stage on Saturday with less demanding obstacles between them and the finish line compared to the first day.
They will have the tricky Cradock Weir to deal with just a few kilometres from the finish line, and as we have seen in the recent past, it can make or break a race.
The pair of Simon van Gysen and Kenny Rice have come out of relative obscurity to be in the hunt for the national K2 title.
They are just over a minute behind the leading two boats going into the final stage.
The ladies race was just as exciting with two boats jostling it out for stage honours, but in the end it was the Euro Steel duo of Christie Mackenzie and Bridgitte Hartley who took line honours.
It was just a second difference between the two boats which means there is nothing in it going into the final 36km shoot-out into Cradock.
"We had a strong day today and Bridgitte is so strong in the back of the boat but I know she is from our marathon training," Varsity College/Euro Steel's Mackenzie said. "It is always great having a dice with Jenna (Ward) and Kyeta (Purchase).
"They have paddled together for years so know each other really well which makes them a tough boat to race against.
"Bridg and I are still trying to work a few things out ahead of Marathon Worlds but this is great prep for us for when we race in three weeks’ time."
The race is going to be a frantic dice to the line but Hartley is positive about their chances.
"I have got a lot of confidence in Christie's driving and she was so confident through all the big rapids on day one.
"I realised that if I trust her and follow her then we will get through everything," Hartley said.
Ward is the defending K2 champion of the Fish and so she will know what it takes to win the race. It is going to be an enthralling contest.
Coming home in third in the women's race on Friday was the pair of Nikki Birkett and Amy Peckett who are over eight minutes behind the top two crews.
From an age group perspective, Hamish Mackenzie and Stew Little currently lead the Under 23 age category while Dom Leslie and Evan Knight trail them in second and Mthobisi Cele and Siyanda Gwamanda are third in that age group.
The first Under 18 boat across the line was an Under 16 boat with Matthew Millward and Kwandokuhle Mzolo leading the charge. They are one place ahead of Ross Leslie and Chase Leisegang in second Under 18.
Leading the charge in the girls age groups are Tracey Oellermann and Sabina Lawrie who lead the Under 23 age category while the Epworth Under 16 duo of Georgina Howard and Lizzy Conradie are sixth in the women's race and fourth overall in the Under 16 category.
The final stage of the Hansa Fish takes paddlers 36km from Knutsford to the Cradock Sports Complex.
More information can be found at www.fishmarathon.org.za
1. Hank McGregor/Wayne Jacobs 2:45:35
2. Stuart Maclaren/Jasper Mocké 2:45:37
3. Simon van Gysen/Kenny Rice 2:46:50
4. Greg Louw Philip Smith 2:47:34
5. Jacques Theron/Bryan Leroux 2:47:36
6. Clinton Cook/Kiko Vega 2:49:29
7. Alan Houston/Lance Kime 2:49:31
8. Sbonelo Khwela/Thulani Mbanjwa 2:51:41
9. Hamish Mackenzie/Stewart Little (U23) 2:51:42
10. Ant Stott/Michael Arthur 2:52:42
1. Christie Mackenzie/Bridgitte Hartley 3:02:24
2. Jenna Ward/Kyeta Purchase 3:02:25
3. Nikki Birkett/Amy Peckett 3:10:34
4. Tracey Oellermann/Sabina Lawrie (U23) 3:17:42
5. Kim van Gysen/Alex Adie 3:22:26