How to punt in Cambridge

When in Cambridge

The river is always full of beginners and professional puntists. The beginners veer all over the place, getting very wet, while the professionals zip between them, somehow managing to avoid collision by the width of an otter’s hair. The worst attempt by a beginner I’ve ever seen at punting was an attempt to use the pole rather like an oar, without ever touching the bottom of the river with it. This patent perplexity pertaining to the point of the punt provoked a pertinent post.

Step 1: hire a punt. They are usually hired hourly, with a three-minute grace at returning-time. Scudamore’s is the usual punt-hire company for the public; they have punts stationed on the “town” side of Magdalene College (under the bridge there), and another set stationed on the river past Queen’s College (or approaching from Pembroke College, cross the road into Mill Lane and go down to the river; you’re pretty much there). If you’re a student, they charge £16.50/hr, which is absurd. (I have not yet tried any of the following student alternatives.) Nominally, Trinity College does punts at £4/hr for Trinity members and £12/hr for other students. Magdalene does punts at what may still be £5/hr for Magdalene students, but I believe this is only available during the Easter term (that is, the summer term). Clare College has punts which may or may not be free to Clare students. St John’s College has punts for John’s students at £4/hr (also, bizarrely, discount rates for the British Antarctic Survey). Other options may exist, but I don’t know about them.

Step 2: ensure that the punt hire people have given you a pole for punting with, and you might want a paddle too, just in case. I have myself accidentally left the pole anchored in the river-bed, and narrowly avoided being left clinging onto it for dear life (à la Three Men in a Boat) - in this situation, a paddle is invaluable.

Step 3: note your starting time, for payment purposes, and calculate the time you need to be back by. You should probably remember to turn back after you have got a little more than halfway to this end time (as it’s always faster once you’ve got into the swing of punting).

Step 4: the designated first puntist takes the pole and puts it into the water (remembering to keep hold of one end). The water end often has a hook or some other distinguishing feature on it. Then ey walks with the pole to the end of the punt, which will be flat and elevated. This end is the back of the punt; passengers sit in front of you.

Step 5: passengers embark, keeping their hands inside the punt (not gripping the edge, as this can lead to horrific injury).

Step 6: you will be released, or you will have to arrange your own release, by dint of untying whatever ropes attach you to the shore. The puntist immerses the pole until its bottom hits the floor, and then uses this as a lever to push the Earth away from the punt. In this manner, you can rotate the Earth beneath you until you are in the middle of the river. Do try to avoid doing this while people are on top of the Eiffel tower, or they might fall off due to the sudden movement of the Earth. Also avoid hitting other punts.

Step 7: Now that you are thoroughly in reverse, you will need to apply some sort of forward propulsion to avoid ploughing into the other bank of the river and thereby annoying the John’s porters and clogging up the river. Do not do this by putting the pole directly behind the punt, as this could cause you to be levered straight off when the punt continues to go backwards. Instead, put the pole behind and to one side of the back of the punt, and push away from you, so that the back of the punt swings away from the pole (and hence the front of the punt swings towards the pole). It will take a lot of pressure to alter course, but once you start changing direction, it is oddly difficult to stop - so do this step as gradually as seems prudent.

Step 8: You should now be parallel with the river, or at least pointing in some direction approximating “water”. To go forwards, put the pole directly behind the punt and push against the river bed with it. Steering is accomplished by dint of waving the pole behind you (still trailing in the water, but no longer touching the bottom) - a long stick of wood/metal suffices as a pretty good rudder. I find it helpful to use my own body as a fulcrum. You will find that it is possible to make very large course adjustments very quickly if you apply enough force to the pole, but again remember that changes of direction are hard to start and easy to keep going, so be gentle. Whenever you need more speed, repeat the “push against river bed” manouevre. If you’re going quickly, you need to do this quickly, as otherwise the punt will be racing away from the point at which you put the pole in. If you’re under a bridge, remember that you won’t have enough height available to do this.

For some reason, courtesy dictates that you keep to the right-hand side of the river in the direction you are going. Why it’s not the left is beyond me.

Step 9: If you find that the punt is not coming out of the river bed, apply a twisting motion while pulling quite hard. It should come suddenly free (and may overbalance you, so keep your weight low); if it does not, you should let go so that you are not left clinging onto it while the punt drifts away from you. Judicious use of the paddle will get you back to retrieve it.

And that’s it. You are now a master puntist. Go forth and wreak havoc upon the river.