The memories of his smash at the turn of last year's race spurred world champion men's doubles rower John Storey to become just the fourth different winner of the Billy Webb Challenge on the Whanganui river yesterday.

Born in Canterbury like Webb himself, Storey powered away to win the 5.7km race by 14 seconds from now two-time runnerup Jordan Parry of Tauranga, with local hero Chris Harris able to steal third from a devastated Waikato lightweight rower Toby Cunliffee-Steel, who stopped rowing in the final strokes because he thought he'd passed the line.

'Mr Billy Webb' Mahe Drysdale had to settle for fifth in his first comeback race after a year's break from competition.

And it all came down to the turn at the buoy after 2.85km, upstream near the Aramoho Rail Bridge, where Storey, who had run into Parry last year, got the clear water and perfect angle this time round and suddenly gained an extra 2-3 boat lengths.

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Both Harris and Drysdale were pushed wider than they would have liked in the turning traffic and it translated into big gap heading back down the course to the finish line across from Union Boat Club.

The six-boat elite group, with also included AWRC's national champion Luke Watts among the world and Olympic medallists, headed off a field of 27 rowers in six categories.

The elites: The men's open group start off the race on the Whanganui River.
The elites: The men's open group start off the race on the Whanganui River.

Parry made a good start, while local Men's Masters 40+ rower Pat Carroll made a big move up from the D Class line to join the B and C Class groups by heading towards the shoreline and the clear water.

Storey was immediately into his work while Harris was also looking strong on his upstream strokes, but it was Cunliffee-Steel who was surprising with his dogged determination to keep up with Parry and race alongside him.

Cunliffee-Steel, Parry and Harris formed the lead group coming under the Dublin St bridge, while Drysdale was watching developments and feeling comfortable after his pre-race training.

Storey held his line and it was soon him and Parry approaching the buoy turn, just as they did 12 months earlier when Parry had the lead line and Storey miscalculated and bumped into him.

This time, Storey had it down pat and swept through the turn, while Parry was left to rue a momentary hesitation, while Drysdale was trapped outside a wide turning Harris.

At the 12 minute mark, Storey now had a comfortable lead, forcing the others to increase their stroke rate earlier than the final 500m dash, as Parry was trying to keep up while at the same time keeping an eye on Cunliffee-Steel and Harris, who had the quickest stroke at this point.

It was not even close as the group came back towards the leaders watching on the city-side banks, as Storey was comfortably ahead and pumped his fist as he heard the electronic beep at 21m 27s - around 52 seconds faster than last year's race in difficult windy conditions.

John Storey came fifth in his debut Billy Webb Challenge race last year, but put those lessons to work in claiming victory in 2017.
John Storey came fifth in his debut Billy Webb Challenge race last year, but put those lessons to work in claiming victory in 2017.

That beep would be a curse for Cunliffe-Steel, because when Parry crossed the line in second place, the Waikato rower was six seconds back and assumed he was also about to cross the line, stopping his strokes.

The local Harris had judged exactly where the line was and powered through his last three strokes to just get the nose of his boat ahead of Cunliffe-Steel's, whose head dropped as he immediately realised his error, with both men registering an identical 21m 47s time.

Having moved close to the shoreline after the turn, Watts was a further 90s back, with Women's Open competitor Brooke Donoghue next, followed by Levi Carroll to lead home the Men's Under 20 field.

Storey had mentioned last year's collision in the pre-race interviews and showed his determination to get to the clear water first this time.

"I think I learnt my lesson from the last one," he said.

"The buoys, I thought they'd be more trapeze, but they were more triangle."

While the lactic burn meant his downstream run was not exactly a Sunday cruise, Storey knew he had it in the bag.

"I didn't have to lift my rate, which was good.

"It's a great event, the water was pleasant."

Parry, who is looking for a seat in an elite New Zealand boat this season as he moves up from the Under 23's, was disappointed to pick up the bridesmaid tag for the second year in a row

"It was a bit of a battle, I think it was good to just take what we learnt last year, and I was lucky to have Chris next to me.

"I just got on a nice, steady pace with him and I knew I'd be ok."

It had all come down to how they handled the turn.

"I saw that John and I were neck and neck, but I should have just launched for the opportunity," Parry said.

"He has this burst in power."

Harris was pleased to have got up to the podium at the last gasp, following the truism you never quit racing until you're more than sure the race is over.

"I had a bit of a stop and look around and knew, 'this isn't the finish line'," he said.

"The turn I found a bit hard, I think I lost a few lengths. You just keep pushing away."

Although his spot was one further back from 2016, Drysdale had felt in stronger condition to regain the trophy, and felt his form will return over the summer season.

"It was a really exciting race today, especially for the first half," he said.

"Just lost a bit round the corner and John had got pretty clear.

"Got a bad position because it was on the outside, there's nothing I could really do.

"It was crash into Chris or wait. Once I lose my rhythm, it's hard to get it back."

Results
Men's Open: John Storey, 21.27; Women's Open: Brooke Donoghue, 24.11; Men's Under 20: Levi Carroll, 24.17; Men's Under 17: Blake Hogan, 25.11; Men's Masters 40+: Pat Carroll, 24.50; Men's Masters 60+: Trevor Rush, 26.53; Women's Under 20: Jamie Harris, 26.40; Women's Under 17: Siena McLean 29.44; Women's Masters 40+: Phillipa Baker-Hogan 27.15.