McGregor partnered with seasoned paddler but Umko first-timer, Jasper Mocke, to take on the 50th edition of what’s considered the world’s roughest and wildest K1/K2 river canoe marathon.

The duo finished the 2-day race in a total time of 4h13m. Dave Hamilton-Brown and Wayne Jacobs finished 2nd in 4h15m, with Murray Starr and Owen Gandar in 3rd in 4h22m.

The Umkomaas Canoe Marathon is notorious for its unpredictability and boat-breaking rapids. Paddlers never know what they’re in for as there are no dams to govern the water releases. Through the Umkomaas Valley, near Richmond, KZN, the river flows fast and strong, providing superb excitement for white water rafters and massive challenges for fragile fibreglass K1 and K2 racing boats.

This year, little rain fall in the days leading up to the race meant paddlers were faced with a low 1.3m water level, requiring immense technical skill and concentration to navigate successfully through the ragged rocky river.

The race started on a more manageable section of the Umkomaas River, with paddlers racing 35km from Josephine’s Bridge to Riverside. McGregor and Mocke were the first boat through Number One rapid. They held onto the lead, finishing Day 1 in 2h11m, three minutes ahead of second-placed Hamilton-Brown/Jacobs team.

Day 2, 32km from Hella Hella to Josephine’s Bridge, was the toughest, presenting the real test of big rapids and leading to the most broken boats. The experienced McGregor and strong Mocke expertly navigated the low level river, with the duo finishing Day 2 in 2h01m, just one minute behind Hamilton-Brown/Jacobs who finished in 2h00m but the McGregor/Mocke team’s 3-minute lead on Day 1 saw them claim the overall title.

Said McGregor, “The Umko is the only race in the world where paddlers don’t sprint off the start line because they’re actually scared of what’s up ahead. Everyone is nervous on the course. I’m stoked to win my 7th title with Jasper Mocke, who was paddling his first. It was an awesome fun day out!”

Remembering the first Umko

The first Umkomaas Canoe Marathon took place on 16 December 1966. Fifty years ago, it was a very different event, with 40 paddlers setting off on a three-day, 112-km adventure that started at Josephine’s Bridge and ended on the south coast where the river meets the Indian Ocean.

In those days, there were no seconds, sponsorship or spectators – just a solitary timekeeper driving a World War 2 Jeep backed up by a vintage short-base Land Rover and other vehicles carrying paddlers’ tents, dry clothes and food provisions. In these days, before life jackets and helmets were made compulsory, and before cell phones had been invented, single canoes were required to paddle in pairs for safety reasons. Most of the entries were singles with a few doubles.

The inaugural race was won by legendary KwaZulu-Natal paddler, Charles Mason.