Punting is a great way of seeing the colleges on the BacksArdfern

Punts first arrived on the River Cam in around 1903 and have since accommodated many a tourist wanting to get a view of the colleges on the Backs from a different angle.  Yet to my shame, since arriving in October, I had not set foot in a boat, rowing or otherwise.  Exams over, it seemed like an appropriate time to rectify this situation by setting foot on a punt with some of my friends.  After all, I had seen plenty of students successfully navigate themselves around the river, managing to avoid collisions with the banks and other punts alike. How wrong could it go?

Well, to quote Jerome K. Jerome in his novel Three Men in a Boat, “Punting is not as easy as it looks”.  Our quick demonstration helped somewhat in trying to establish the basics.  The main rule was to ensure that we put the steering pole slightly behind us on the riverbed to propel ourselves forwards.   Nonetheless, panic quickly took over as soon as we cast away because we found the punt going backwards and veering to the right, instead of forwards and facing left as we had been intending.

The main difficulty was trying to move in a straight line. It did not help that none of us had the confidence to stand on the stern for fear of falling in.  This meant that the pole always came down on the right rather than straight behind us which caused the punt to turn slightly every time we tried to move.  However, this adjustment should not have given us as many problems as it did.  On several occasions we managed to turn 90 degrees so that we were parallel with the bridges, waiting to be hit by an oncoming punt to turn us back into a better position.  Other times we would continue going around in a circle, much to the amusement of tourists on the bridges.  Whenever the guided punters passed us they said, “I bet you’re glad that you didn’t hire a self-guided punt now!” as we continued swirling around causing chaos.

King's Bridge was one of the trickier obstacles to navigate aroundHakkun

When we were not blocking the river, we were hugging the bank.  This unplanned tactic worked much better for us as we could stay out the way of faster moving punts and if in doubt  push ourselves away from the side in an attempt to get going.  This was all well and good until we had to go under a bridge, where the punt has to be moved about a metre away from the bank to clear it without the steersman banging their head.  This was particularly tricky near the bridge at King's, where I also got entangled with a tree.  I had to reverse away from the bank and the side of the bridge, which was bizarrely easier than moving forwards but I had to rely on my friends to look out for potential obstacles.  It was a true test of teamwork which we just about scraped through.

We all found the pole quite hard to manoeuvre, mainly because it is so heavy.  Pulling it out of the water to make the next stroke took forever and we had to swap round regularly as arms got tired very quickly.  Me being me, I also managed to hit myself in the face with the pole when trying to reverse, which summed up my punting performance nicely.  The punt and pole had control of me for the hour, when it should perhaps have been the other way round!

I would love to see competitive punting in the form of a Cuppers race down the river in a future May Week. I imagine that there would be a mixed crew of six in each punt and two colleges would race each other at a time.  Starting at Silver Street Bridge, the race would be a relay, changing the steersman between each bridge.  The first college crew to reach Magdalene Bridge would win and progress to the next round.  It would be difficult to organise, but I am sure the banks would be packed if it were to ever happen.  There is also no Varsity punting match, but for those less invested in the serious rowing of the Boat Race, it could be a more entertaining event.


Mountain View

Punting with bats

Despite the numerous issues we encountered, I am sure I will be setting foot on a punt again, albeit perhaps on a guided one next time.  I was certainly not one of the best punters ever to grace the Cam, but crucially I would not have qualified for the now disbanded Dampers Club, whose membership was open to everyone who had fallen unwillingly into the river while punting.  That is definitely one of my greater sporting achievements.

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