2017 STIHL Umko

STIHL UMKO 2017 – John Oliver’s report

Just over 200 paddlers took part this year.

Day one was hot and sunny with the river at around 1.3m. There was a 100% finish rate for the day despite some damage here and there. Hank McGregor and Lee Furby won the day 43 seconds ahead of Thomas Lovemore and Clinton Cook with Murray Starr and Stu MacLaren lying third less than a second later. Thus the second day started with essentially no real advantage to anyone.

Day two was cloudy and cool with rain in the hills and the river a bit lower at about 1.25m. The 100% finish of day one was a thing of the past with especially rapid No.5&6 taking a heavy toll. (edit: Leaders McGregor and Furby swam here).

At the end of the day it was new winners for the Umko with Murray Starr and Stu MacLaren first at Josephines bridge followed 37 seconds later by Thomas Lovemore and Clinton Cook still in second place and Hank and Lee third just 6 seconds further back.

Marc Germiquet won the singles from Hennie Roos and Ric Whitton, Colin Simpkins and Hayley Nixon were first Mixed and Kirsty Fox and Sarah Robinson were the only woman’s finishers in 41st place overall.

Jeff Cawood on river safety

Following a pretty sobering incident at Umko’s infamous rapid No.5&6 this weekend I had one of those epiphany moments that I hope other paddlers could benefit from.

Rob Hill has been banging on about swift water rescue courses for ages and how important it is to make paddlers capable of rescuing other paddlers. This scenario played itself out on Sunday and without some of those skills we would be one paddler short this morning.

Coincidently this incident took place in one of the big rapids but statistically that is quite rare. Short of lining the banks with marshals we have got to be more capable of saving each other when things go wrong. In a scenario where every second counts it’s critically important to have hands-on experience which does not happen without first-hand practice.

The other thing that surprises me is how many paddlers will spend a lot of money on a new boat and paddles and then scrimp on their pfd and helmet. That is until they have some good down-time on a big rapid, then the first thing they prioritise is extra buoyancy!

Without a high proportion of rescue-competent paddlers in every race field it is a matter of time before it all ends in tears.

I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to witness those skills saving someone’s life!


Charlie Mason’s 50th finish!! The 30-and-over boys gather round to congratulate him. That’s a whole lotta man-years right there! Centuries!


Umko 2017 Charles 50_4 FIFTY finishes! That’s insane. And wonderful.


And an early report from the ever-wide-awake Jennie Dallas reporting on the invading fleet from behind the boerewors curtain:



There were only 125 boats on the results of the Umko Marathon which took place weekend 18 / 19 March 2017, adding up to 75 K2’s and 49 K1’s with over 70 paddlers being Gautengers! It was delightful to note that the Female winning team on this Umkomaas river race were our Gauteng ladies – Kirsty Fox and Sarah Robinson (ERK/DABS) who finished as 37th K2, in a time of 5 hours 29 minutes over the two days! Well done – that’s called flying the Gauteng flag!!

They were in fact the only ladies team to finish the event – although there was a female KZN sweep noted on the results, as F2 – in a K1.


Plus Copper’s Corner –

A report from our very own Secret-Turry Generaal

That guy Murphy has been messing with the river levels again.

The Umko has been in flood for 5 weeks.

Those who had been brave enough to enter early, had rushed out to buy bigger lifejackets, extra splashcovers, anti-depressants, pre-race laxatives and a lot of alcohol.

All for naught. Some joker had pulled the plug.

Come race day the river had dropped to just over 1.2 metres, an ideal level for boat manufacturers. The river was full enough to send you down the slightest drop at a rate of knots, whilst, at the same time, baring its teeth, causing most of us to feel like a pin ball at the bottom of many of the rapids. Very few were spared the sound of grinder on fiberglass at the overnight stop.

Hank MacGregor and Lee Furby managed to pull a 40 second advantage over the Starr/MacLaren and Cook/Lovemore chasing boats after the first day, from Josephine’s to Riverside.

As with many of the multi-day races in this country, the slower paddlers were set off before the elapsed time paddlers, allowing the field to concertina near the finish. This is done mainly to keep John Oliver on his toes, as he is forced to record multiple results in a very short space of time, but also to ensure that the hot water in the showers runs out at the country club with no chance of heating up in time for a second sitting.

Whilst there are certain advantages to having the slower paddlers leave first, there are also a number of disadvantages. The main one being that the racing snakes become entwined with the plonkers and part-time ornithologists as they hurtle towards fame and glory. This is not much of a problem if it happens on flat water, as the only downside is having to climb a number of hefty waves. A few profanities, muttered under ones’ breath usually absolves the perpetrator of any wrongdoing.

If, however, the encounter takes place in the middle of a large rapid, there is often a less favourable outcome. Especially when the snake is travelling at terminal velocity and the slower paddler is travelling at zero, stuck across the only gap available down the torrent. When this happens at number 5 on the Umko (the most hectic of them all), and happens to the leading two boats in the field, all hell breaks loose. How to ruin a Sunday morning dot com.

Murray Starr had broken the long standing family tradition of never pulling in a race, ever, and had managed to snatch the lead (with Stuart MacLaren) from Hank and Lee, who were biding their time, sitting a few boat lengths behind, as they approached number 5. The Cook/Lovemore duo, having anticipated the lack of hot water at the country club, had elected to rinse off in number 1, and were out of contention.

Murray and Stu had to do some nifty paddle work to avoid the boat that was stuck in the rapid. This caused Hank to spin out and get himself stuck under a rock, facing upstream. With his head half under the water, and disturbing flashes of coming second in races when he was younger flashing through his head, he thought that he had “bought it”. Fortunately the cockpit rim cracked after nearly a minute, and the boat extricated itself.

A massive chase saw them catch up to within a hundred metres or so towards the end, but the effort had been too much. Salt was rubbed into the wound by the freshly rinsed off pair of Cook and Lovemore overtaking them in the last rapid.

Hank’s resigned comment at the end of the race was “That’s the Umko”.

Murray Starr becomes only the second paddler to share the experience of winning an Umko as his father has done. Richard Starr won the race in 1986 with a phenomenally talented partner.

The only other father/son winners have been Paul and Oscar Chalupsky. Probably the best, and second best, paddlers in the world, ever (if only Paul could have lifted his game a little).

The paddlers in the 125 boats that finished the race will have war stories to dine out on for the entire year. There were very few grumpy faces at the end.

My surfski paddling partner, doing her first Umko, was like a turbo charged rock of Gibralta. She apologized for one or two bad lines that I took, but was otherwise a legend.

Performance of the day must, however go to Charlie Mason who received his badge for completing his 50th Umko.

– Colin Simpkins – CanoeSA Secretary-General


UMKO 2017…….. the radical test

Paddlers, for those that got through both days of this past weekend’s epic Umko Canoe Marathon challenge, well done. Once again the river had its say and yes, it was the day two section from Hella Hella to #8 that took its toll on paddlers and craft. The river level was such that no rapid had a sneak, it was all main line which tested craft & paddler alike.

Appropo the various messages and and phone calls received insofar as the action / incidents at #5&6, well it was a busy spot on Sunday. Long story short, there were two paddler rescues and two craft recoveries going on, both sides of Pinnacle Rock, which coincided with the time when some of the elite group came through. Due to the assessed risk and safety factors, the rapid was closed for a short ten minute period to allow for the rescue & recoveries to take place, thereafter re-opened.

In terms of the rest of that testy section from Hella Hella to #8, most of the numbered, and House Rock rapids had their fair share of action, but yes #5&6 certainly was the most active. FYI, four paddlers had to be taxied out from #5&6 to below #8 on the two-man inflatable crocs, having got their broken craft out the river and stripped of all cables, metal, seats, etc….

To KCC, Rob, Ernie & Terry and their teams, well done hosting yet another safe, successful and enjoyable event… a true test of paddling.

In summary, the river safety team had some equipment attrition, i.e. broken Fluid sit-on plastic white water craft, two broken flat blade white water paddles and a destroyed safety rope – the latter during the mentioned #5&6 paddler/craft, rescue/recoveries. So if any of you have any plastic flat blade white water paddles you’re not using, we would welcome the donation. In fact an appeal to all of you is for funding support of the CanoeSA river safety & sweep team, for the races we attend and the courses we host… truly a worthy corporate CSi cause and investment in saving lives. For those in a position to, or keen to assist, please contact me for details and benefits.

In closing, remember, it’s all about safety first, safety always and NO compromise…..!

ROB HILL – CSA Safety Officer – www.canoesa.co.za  +27 (0) 83 636 1315 rob@swiftwaterx.com

Author: bewilderbeast

It's about life, marriage, raising kids, paddling rivers, travel in Africa . . . re-posting thoughts written over decades - at random, I'm afraid.

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