Knutsford - In conditions that could be described as near perfect, pre-race favourites Hank McGregor and Bridgitte Hartley made off with the 2018 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon Day 1 spoils at Knutsford on Friday.
Euro Steel/Fenn Kayaks' McGregor diced it out at the front of the race with good friend and K2 partner Andy Birkett over the tough 48km first stage.
McGregor took home stage honours in a tame end sprint - leading by just a second overnight.
"It was a cracker day today," seven-time champion McGregor said.
"We worked hard across the dam and then ran hard around the dam wall to the put in and from there it was pretty much a dice between the two us with a lot of fun thrown in on top of that.
"There were a number of obstacles where we could make mistakes but we worked together and put one another under pressure a couple of times.
"It was all good, hard, fair racing and I think that tomorrow is going to be exciting."
On a race that has many testing obstacles throughout the 83km from start to finish, McGregor knows that there is a lot of paddling that needs to be done on Saturday if he is to wrap up and eighth Fish crown.
"You can't really plan for anything on this race and you can make a mistake pretty quickly.
"I am racing the current world champion in a K1 so I've got to have some energy left in the tank," he added.
Without a K1 Fish title to his name, Andy Birkett is just a second behind leader McGregor going into the final stage. Despite there being a title on the line Birkett relished being back in his river K1.
"Of course there is a race on the go but it's incredible that we can enjoy the river wherever you are in field and we enjoyed every minute of today.
"First-and-foremost you have to appreciate the river and after going through Keith's and Soutpans we were both on a high and really just enjoying the day," Birkett said.
Rising KZN star Clinton Cook grabbed third place on the first stage, edging out seasoned Dusi racer Thulani Mbanjwa, with visiting Spanish ace Kiko Vega wrapping up the top five overnight.
In the women's race Euro Steel's Hartley spent the majority of the day on her own following her decision to portage around the infamous Keith's Flyover Rapid and that decision paid dividends as she ended the stage with a two-and-half minute lead over Jenna Ward in second.
"I started quite slowly but when I got the other side of the dam portage I made sure I stayed clean through to Keith's and then after that I put the hammer down a little bit," Hartley mentioned.
"At Soutpans I was really hoping to make it the whole way but I swam at the bottom, but it didn't cost me too much time.
"After there I paddled really hard and knew I had to do that until I crossed the line."
Hartley has Ward, and then a group of three paddlers including Robyn Owen, Christie Mackenze and Nikki Birkett chasing her. She wants to make sure that Saturday's final stage is as close to flawless as possible.
"I am not sure what the gap is but you can never be complacent and just make sure that you race properly for the two days.
"You need to concentrate on shooting everything that you are going to well and pushing hard on the flat water."
Hartley's tactic of getting into the lead and putting the pressure on the other paddlers to make up the gap paid dividends for the three-time Olympian.
"I wanted to get ahead because I was a little worried about Soutpans. It is always tough one, especially with more water on race day.
"It was an amazing day and it isn't the end of the world to have one swim on such a good day!" she added with a smile.
Jenna Ward, along with Hartley, is also in search of a first K1 title at the Fish to go with her 2017 K2 title.
For Ward it was important that she stuck to her race plan and didn't get carried away if she found herself behind early on.
"I know that the ladies race on day one only starts after Soutpans so I just stayed as calm as possible throughout," she said.
"I was quite slow across the dam and shot Double Trouble in sixth so I contemplated shooting Keith's but knew that I needed to keep focused on how I had planned my race.
"Tomorrow there are still a lot of obstacles where mistakes can be made so I will race as hard as I can to the finish."
Varsity College's Stewart Little was the first Under 23 across the line on Friday in eighth place overall, while David Evans was the first Under 18 paddler into Knutsford in 12th overall.
Christie Mackenzie, also a Varsity College paddler, was the first under 23 lady home in fifth in the ladies race.
Stage two of the 2018 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon takes paddlers 36km from below Knutsford to the finish at the Cradock Sports Complex on Saturday.
Standings after Stage 1:
1. Hank McGregor 2:53:54
2. Andy Birkett 2:53:55
3. Clinton Cook 2:59:07
4. Thulani Mbhanjwa 2:59:08
5. Kiko Vega (ESP) 2:59:46
6. Brandon van der Walt 2:59:47
7. Siseko Ntondini 2:59:49
8. Stewart Little (U23) 3:02:13
9. Joshua Fenn (U23) 3:02:13
10. Alan Houston (U23) 3:02:14
1. Bridgitte Hartley 33:19:06
2. Jenna Ward 3:21:40
3. Nikki Birkett 3:22:29
4. Robyn Owen 3:22:30
5. Christie Mackenzie (U23) 3:22:31
1. Stewart Little 3:02:13
2. Joshua Fenn 3:02:13
3. Alan Houston 3:02:14
1. Christie Mackenzie 3:22:31
1. David Evans 3:05:47
2. Hamish Mackenzie 3:07:54
3. Uli Hart 3:09:08