01 November 2008

quintessential cambridge experience #2: punting on the cam

Punting has to be one of the most preposterous modes of transport ever invented. Among ways of getting from Point A to Point B that are faster and easier than punting are: walking, swimming, somersaulting, and doing that inchworm dance. Punting, one might say, is the ultimate celebration of British inefficiency.

And yet we do it and love it; it's THE activity for tourists in Cambridge. So what is punting, you ask? It consists of guiding a big, awkward wooden boat (a punt) along the river by pushing an enormous pole into the earth at the bottom of the river. It's only possible on an tiny river like the Cam, which can't be more than 20 meters across at its widest and is so calm that standing on the shore it can be hard to tell which way it's flowing. The mighty Mississip it ain't.

Last Sunday I went punting for the first time with Shannon and Christoph from my MCR and Christoph's girlfriend Miriam. I led off as "punter," and it only took a few minutes for me to tell that I was way out of my element. The punter stands precariously on the stern of the boat and tries desperately to maintain forward motion, not crash into the bank, and not fall in the water, while the passengers laugh at his/her misfortune. I did have one scary moment where the pole got momentarily stuck in the mud at the bottom of the Cam and I almost stayed behind with it-- there was a gasp from the rest of the group as I crouched down to steady myself.

Things got better when I had one crucial realization: you need to treat the pole primarily as a rudder, not as a motor. Pushing off the bottom of the riverbed is all well and good and easy enough, but the placement of the pole in between pushes makes the difference between smooth sailing and drunken zigzags. We punted along a famous stretch known as "the backs," a collection of neatly manicured lawns, ancient colleges and chapels, and numerous bridges. Everyone took a turn at the helm, and I'm sorry to report that the two Germans far outshone the two Americans in the punting department. A few pictures of the experience:

Along the Backs.

Christoph and Miriam with the "bridge of sighs."

Shannon and me with King's Chapel, which is Cambridge's most famous landmark.

1 comment:

Bob said...

Why is it called "punting"? I usually associate the term with footballs or, perhaps, tough questions.