Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 September 2019

Taking a punt isn’t as relaxing as you expect

Three freshers and an older student - a supposedly experienced punter - clambered onto a punt each, setting off into a scene of tranquil serenity.

To ease the ice-breaking process for the freshers, various student committees have organised punting trips for us. Punting is one of the staples of life at Oxford and Cambridge, and involves standing on the tip of a long, canoe-like boat, with a long, single oar to propel you through the water. It’s an extremely pleasant experience if you are one of the people sitting safe and snug inside the boat while somebody else is in charge of getting the boat to move. It’s considerably less so when you are the punter.

We met at the college backs, which are vast expanses of greenery facing the beautiful River Cam, with a view of quaint bridges and the graceful architecture of the centuries-old colleges to admire. Three freshers and an older student – a supposedly experienced punter – clambered onto a punt each, setting off into a scene of tranquil serenity. The only sounds were of the ducks quacking, the splash of oar on water and the nervous laughter of young people embarking on a new phase of their lives and experiencing a quintessentially Cantabrigian tradition. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, supremely peaceful until our punter, George, looked at us quizzically. “Anyone want to have a go?”

The others looked at each other, eyebrows furrowed. Aha, I thought, doesn’t look hard at all; just occasionally giving the oar a push through the water. Besides, when in Cambridge do as Cambridge does – it’d be a shame to let the opportunity pass.

Oh, how blissful ignorance is. No sooner had I climbed up that I realised that superhuman strength was needed even to lift the oar off the ground. Or maybe that’s just my lack of muscular strength talking.

“Just move it backwards and forwards, you’ll get the hang of it!” called George cheerfully. I doubt that streamlining was understood when the punting boat was created, because the oar simply refuses to move through the water.

When it finally did manage to move forward, it did so at an excruciatingly slow pace – several ducks overtook us. Several more would have if I hadn’t careered right into their little group, because I couldn’t go straight, but zigzagged across the Cam, managing to cover far more distance in width rather than length.

A bridge very rudely tried to trap us, and we finally caught hold of the side of another punt full of tourists. We got towed along until they started taking our photos, so we wisely relinquished our grip – all very reminiscent of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.

At this point, I firmly, if unceremoniously, untangled my arms from the oar. It was passed back to a reluctant George, who seemed to be enjoying a lazy afternoon, because we were moving at a snail’s pace.

I’m sitting in front of the Cam on a park bench as I write this, and the view is spectacularly idyllic, with rowers going past – it almost makes you want to jump on a punt. I know better: my hands and shoulders ache with every letter typed. Note to self: make friends with someone who can punt – and actually enjoys it.

The writer is an 18-year-old student who grew up in Dubai


Updated: November 9, 2013 04:00 AM