A punt is a flat-bottomed boat with a square-cut bow, designed for use in small rivers or other shallow water. Punting refers to boating in a punt. The punter generally propels the punt by pushing against the river bed with a pole. A punt should not be confused with a gondola, which is propelled with an oar rather than poled.
Punts were originally built as cargo boats or platforms for fowling and angling but in modern times their use is almost exclusively confined to pleasure trips on the rivers in the university towns of Oxford and Cambridge in England and races at a few summer regattas on the Thames. The term "punt" has also been used to indicate a smaller version of a regional type of long shore working boat, for example the Deal Galley Punt. This derives from the wide usage in coastal communities of the name "Punt" for any small clinker open stem built general purpose boat. According to March and The Chatham directory there were punts peculiar to Happisburgh (Norfolk), Yarmouth (Norfolk), Broadstairs (Kent), Dover (Kent), Hastings (East Sussex), Eastbourne (East Sussex), Itchen Ferry (Hampshire), and Falmouth (Cornwall).
The first punts are traditionally associated with the River Thames in England and were built as small cargo boats or platforms for fishermen. Pleasure punts – specifically built for recreation – became popular on the Thames between 1860 and 1880. Some other boats have a similar shape to a traditional punt – for example the Optimist training dinghy or the air boats used in the Everglades – but they are generally built with a box construction instead of the open ladder-like design of a traditional Thames pleasure punt.
Since a punt has no keel, it draws only a few inches even when fully laden; this makes it very manoeuvrable and suitable for shallow water. A punt can be punted with equal facility in either direction; this is handy in narrow streams where turning round may be difficult. The square-cut bow gives greater carrying capacity for a given length than a boat of the same beam with a narrow or pointed bow; it also makes the boat very stable, and suitable for passengers.
Punts are still made in England, mainly to supply the tourist trade in Oxford and Cambridge. The construction material of choice is wood. Fibreglass and other synthetic materials have been tried, but the resulting boats are rarely stiff enough to be easy to use. The sides, the ends (known as "huffs"), and the "till" are normally made of hardwood such as mahogany. The treads are often made from teak. The bottom is made of softwood and may be replaced several times during the life of a particular boat.
A traditional punt is about long and wide. The sides are about 18 inches (0.5 m) deep. Both the bow and the stern are cut square, with a long shallow "swim"; this is to say that the underside of the boat slopes very gently at the front and the back.
The bottom of the punt is made with long, narrow planks stretching fore and aft, attached to the flat sides and the treads. In order to allow the wood to swell when it gets wet, the planks are set a small distance apart (traditionally the width of an old penny, about 1–2 mm). The gaps are caulked; this caulking normally needs to be renewed annually. The treads are attached to the sides with small wooden "knees", which may be vertical or set at an angle. The diagram above shows a punt without seats. The seats are usually just a simple board fitting against blocks on the sides, with cushions. The gaps between the treads are normally fitted with gratings to allow the passengers to keep their feet dry.
A punt can be punted with equal facility in either direction so it is not obvious to the novice which end is the bow and which the stern; however one end of the boat is strengthened with a short deck, usually called a "counter" or a "till" (terms from cabinet making), that extends some six feet (2 m) from that end. The Thames punt-building tradition was that the end with the till was the stern as shown in the diagram. The till provides some extra torsional rigidity, and is normally closed in; occasionally a locker may be built into it. A small minority of punts, such as those made from fibreglass at Magdalen College, Oxford have no single till in the usual sense, instead having very small tills at either end.
The forerunners of pleasure punts, fishing punts, usually had an additional compartment called a "well" that extended across the width of the punt a little way in front of the till. This compartment was made water-tight, and had holes in the bottom or sides so that it could be flooded with water. It was used for keeping any caught fish.
Both smaller and wider punts are made. Extra large and wide punts may be seen in Cambridge, where many are used as water-borne tourist vehicles. Single seater Thames punts were normally made only 2 feet (60 cm) wide, and somewhat shorter than a standard punt; very few of these are still afloat. Racing punts, which are still used by a few specialist clubs on the lower Thames, may be built even narrower. Thames punts have occasionally been adapted for other means of propulsion: including sails, tow-ropes, and paddle wheels. With the addition of iron hoops and canvas awnings, punts have also been used for camping.
Poles for pleasure punts are normally made of spruce, or aluminium. A normal pole is about 12–16 feet (4–5 m) long and weighs about 10 lb (5 kg). In both Oxford and Cambridge long poles tend to be used exclusively.
The bottom of the pole is fitted with a metal "shoe", a rounded lump of metal to protect the end – the shoe is sometimes made in the shape of a swallow tail.
Traditional wooden poles are preferred by many experienced punters; they are more sympathetic on the hands and make less noise on contact with the river bottom or the punt compared to an aluminium pole. As of 2005 all wooden poles in England are supplied by Collars of Oxford, and they cost about £120 including a shoe. Aluminium poles are considerably cheaper and stronger, so may be preferred by punt stations offering punts for hire to inexperienced punters, however it is normally possible to choose either type.
Racing poles are generally a great deal lighter than pleasure punt poles, and aluminium is the preferred material. It is usual to carry one or two spare poles in a race, so that one can keep punting if a pole gets stuck or is dropped.
The basic technique of punting is to shove the boat along with a pole by pushing directly on the bed of the river or lake. In the 1870s, when punting for pleasure first became popular, the normal approach was for the passengers to sit at the stern on cushions placed against the till, and for the punter to have the run of the rest of the boat. The punter started at the bow, planted the pole, and then walked towards the stern, shoving the punt forwards. This is known as "running" the punt. It was the normal technique used to move heavy fishing punts. As pleasure punts became lighter, it became more usual for the punter to stand still – normally towards the stern – while shoving. This is called "pricking" the punt. Pricking has the advantages that the punter is less likely to walk off the end of the punt inadvertently, and that more of the punt can be used to carry passengers.
For pleasure punting, the best way to learn is to start out in a boat with a competent punter in order to watch him or her at work. After this there is no substitute for extensive hands-on practice on different stretches of river. For racing punting it is best to join a club, and to work on one's balance. Some punt racers practise by punting in canoes.
The orthodox punting position is to stand in front of the till, towards the back of the boat, and to punt from the side. Left-handers stand on the starboard side with the left leg forward; right-handers stand on the port side with the right leg forward. The leading foot is placed against one of the knees, and should not move as you punt. The back foot moves backwards and forwards as the punter makes each stroke.
Rather different traditions have grown up in Oxford and Cambridge: in Cambridge they stand on the till and punt with the open end forward, while in Oxford they stand inside the boat and punt with the till forward. The Oxford position is closer to the orthodox. Since the rivers in both cities are narrow and often crowded, there is little opportunity for punting "at full pressure", so these variations in stance are of little importance. Nevertheless the traditions are often strongly held; students at Oxford and Cambridge frequently believe that theirs is the only correct style.
The orthodox position may benefit the experienced punter who does have the opportunity of a clear river or who is planning a long day trip.
The punter now uses judgement to decide if the river bottom is gravel or mud depending on the sound and feel of the pole striking the bottom. If it is gravel he will push hard to move the punt; if it is mud he will push gently to avoid getting the pole stuck.
In general the punter will use the pushes of the pole to direct the punt, but if he feels this is not enough he will trail the pole in the water behind the punt with at least half its length submerged, using his hip as a pivot, and swing it as a rudder. This technique is much used (out of necessity) by novice punters.
More experienced punters sometimes stand to one side of the punt, so that it tips down slightly on that side. This makes a slight keel under the boat and helps to keep it in a straight line.
In Cambridge, some experienced punters punt one-handed. This technique is only really suitable for the shallow gravelly conditions offered by the Cam and is slower and harder to master than punting with both hands. The technique consists of a normal "bucket" recovery of the pole (where the pole is thrown forward rather than just pulled up), except that this recovery is done with one hand.
Racing punters tend to stand in the middle of the punt, because it is more efficient to do so. Indeed many racing punts have cross braces with canvas covers both fore and aft, so it is only possible to stand in the middle. Pleasure punters may like to try punting from the middle, but it is probably advisable to remove the seats and the passengers first.
It is also possible to punt tandem, that is with two punters standing one behind another in the middle of the boat, and generally punting from the same side. Some punt races are organized for pairs punting tandem.
The pleasure punts in use in England today were first built around 1860 and reached the peak of their popularity in the 1910s. Their use declined in the 1950s and 1960s in proportion to the increase in motor boat traffic on English rivers, but has increased again as the tourist industry has grown in England.
Punting is a popular leisure activity on the rivers of several well-known tourist destinations: there are commercial organizations that offer punts for hire on the Avon in Bath, the Cam in Cambridge, the Cherwell & Isis in Oxford, at Stratford-on-Avon, and on the lower Thames near Sunbury. A small number of private punts are also registered on these rivers, especially by the colleges in Oxford and Cambridge.
Traditional Thames pleasure punts were not introduced to Cambridge until about 1902–1904, but they rapidly became the most popular craft on the river, and today there are probably more punts on the Cam than on any other river in England. This is partly because the river is shallow and gravelly (at least along the The Backs) which makes it ideal for punting, but mainly because the Cam goes through the heart of Cambridge and passes close to many very attractive old college buildings. However, the popularity of punting beside the old colleges in Cambridge produces significant congestion on this relatively narrow stretch of the river during the peak tourist season, leading to frequent collisions between inexperienced punters. These collisions are mostly harmless, but visitors to the city may prefer the calmer experience offered on the river above the weir. Further upstream, the river enters some particularly beautiful and tranquil countryside as it approaches the village of Grantchester. A popular summer pastime for Cambridge students is to punt to Grantchester and back, stopping for lunch in a pleasant Grantchester pub. During tourist season, students have been known to steal the poles of tourist punts as they pass below the College bridges.
There are several companies on the Cam operating tours and hiring punts to visitors, as of 2006 these companies included: Scudamore's (who acquired their long-standing rival, Tyrell's, in 2006 ), Cambridge Chauffeur Punts, and Granta Punting Company. There are also some independent operators (although these are currently under threat ) and, while most of the colleges along the river keep punts for the exclusive use of their students, at Trinity College the punts are also available for hire to the public.
The tradition in Cambridge is to punt from the till (locally known as the "deck") at the back of the punt. There are some advantages to this: you are less likely to drip on your passengers and it is easier to steer by swinging the pole behind you, but it is not how Thames punts were traditionally propelled. Nor was the till originally designed for standing on; Cambridge-built punts are made with extra strong decks, and sometimes with a deck at both ends. Photographs of punting on the Backs in 1910 show that the practice was well established by then; according to an old Cambridge boat man, Don Strange interviewed in the 1970s, the practice was started by women from Girton anxious to show off their ankles.
From late in the 19th century until at least 1989, an undergraduate social club called the Damper Club, (or Dampers Club after 1958) took a loose responsibility for the interests of punting on the Cam. Membership was open to "all those who have unwillingly entered the Cam fully clothed". The future Python, Graham Chapman was president in 1961–62.
Where the River Cam flows through the town in Cambridge, experienced punters follow the path of a gravel ridge that makes for easier punting. This ridge has a curious history. It is the remains of an old towpath built when the Cam was still used for commercial river traffic. The banks on either side of the river belong to various university colleges; faced with their combined opposition to a conventional towpath on one side or the other, the river tradesmen were forced to build the towpath in the course of the stream, and to make the tow horses wade along it.
Except in the immediate vicinity of Magdalen Bridge, punting in Oxford is a surprisingly quiet and rural experience. Most of the punting is done on the River Cherwell, which flows through Oxford's protected green belt of fields and woods for the last few miles before it joins the Thames just south-east of Christ Church Meadow. Unfortunately this tranquillity comes at a price, for the Cherwell is both deep and muddy, and the muddy patches cling tenaciously to the pole's shoe at unexpected moments.
Punting on the Thames below Folly Bridge is often less enjoyable, mainly because of the competition from eights and sculls and motor boats; punts are recommended to keep close in beside the towpath. The best punting to be had in Oxford is on the Isis alongside Port Meadow to the west of the town; this stretch of river is both shallow and gravelly, has attractive scenery, and is well supplied with pubs (such as The Trout Inn, Wolvercote where some of the Inspector Morse dramas were filmed).
The tradition at Oxford is to punt from inside the boat rather than from on top of the till (or "box" as it tends to be called in Oxford) and to propel the punt with the till end facing forwards. The tradition dates from before 1880.
In the Roman spa town of Bath, it is possible to punt on the Avon from the town centre. The river however is deep and shared with large motor vessels. The puntable stretch of river runs beside Brunel's Great Western Railway line. It is also possible to punt on the Lancaster Canal from Lancaster. There is some punting on the River Wear in Durham and some of the colleges of Durham University own punts, however small rowing boats are more popular and better suited to the Wear.
Punting is possible on most of the Thames above the tidal limit at Teddington; even in places where the river is broad it is often surprisingly shallow, especially at the edges. Commercial punts have been available for hire near Sunbury-on-Thames in recent times, but most Thames punting is now confined to a few Skiff and Punting clubs. There are active clubs at Walton, Thames Ditton, Wraysbury, and Sunbury. These clubs concentrate on racing punts rather than pleasure punting.
Races are normally held over a distance of up to 880 yards (800 m) along a straight reach of the river, each end of the course being marked by a pair of poles called "ryepecks" which are firmly pushed into the river bed before the race. Races are always one punt against another, one having the inner lane and the other the outer lane. If the outer lane has consistently deeper water, then the length of the outer course may be reduced to make the race more even.
The competitors usually start with their punts' sterns level with the line between the downstream ryepecks, punt to the upstream ryepecks, and then back. The winner is the first to pass the line of the starting ryepecks (or the first one to hit his or her own ryepeck).
The turn at the upstream ryepecks is done by "stopping-up"; that is the competitor passes the ryepeck on the outside, stops his or her punt with the pole just upstream of the ryepeck, turns to face the stern of the boat and punts back in the other direction, passing the ryepeck on the inside.
Handicap races are normally held in standard "2 foot punts", that is punts that are 2 ft (60 cm) wide in the middle and about 18 inches (45 cm) wide at each end. There are no restrictions on width or length for non-handicap races; punts used for these races are called "best boats" or "best-and-best" punts; the name comes from the "best" boat that you can find and the "best" boat that your opponent can. The narrowest of these boats are no more than 15 inches (40 cm) wide. All racing punts generally have a till at both ends, and may have canvas covers to reduce the amount of water splashing into the boat.
As of 2008, summer regattas with punt races are held at Sunbury, Chertsey, Walton, Wraysbury, Thames Ditton, and Teddington. The annual Thames Punting Championships are held at Maidenhead. The punting championships have been held for well over 100 years, one of the earliest champions being the all-rounder Lord Desborough.
Punt racing under Thames Punting Club rules has never taken hold at either Oxford or Cambridge, where serious watermen and women have always preferred rowing, but varsity punt races were held on the lower Thames in the 1950s and 1960s, and in 2007 the first official varsity race for around thirty years was held with victory going to the Cambridge team.
Less formal punt races have also been conducted between the Cambridge Dampers Club, and its one-time Oxford rival the Charon Club. Races were conducted on the Cam or the Cherwell using normal pleasure punts in relays, traditionally with female undergraduates on each side as the batons, jumping between boats on each leg of the race.
For a number of years the Cambridge Dampers Club also took part in the annual Scottish Boat Race against the Honourable Society of Edinburgh Boaters, racing along the Union Canal between Hermiston and Ratho for the Antlers Trophy.
Traditional "Thames" punts are also popular on a few other rivers outside England. These include:
There is also punting on the River Neckar in Tübingen, Germany, using boats (called Stocherkahn) that are similar in design to Thames punts but are larger and deeper, and have a narrower bow and stern. Bench seats for passengers are provided down each side, and the punter stands on a small triangular deck at the stern.
The technique of using a pole to propel a narrow boat in confined waters has developed in many other cultures, especially in marshy or swampy areas where transport on land is difficult. These include: