There is a rich sub-culture surrounding punting and life on the river Cam that is not without its quirks that make it so unique. Here are a few things to be aware of when punting, especially on sunny days and during the busiest times on the river.
Punting is incredibly popular – there are more punts on the river Cam than all of the other rivers in the UK combined, so it should come as no surprise that during the high season there can be real traffic congestion, with boats trying to navigate the narrow stretch of water that runs through the old colleges, in the hands of pilots of varying skill and ability.
On sunny summer days, when punting is at its most appealing for locals and visitors alike, collisions between punts are not at all uncommon, especially between newbie punters. These collisions, while mostly harmless, can cause some distress and they have led to numerous punters falling into the river water throughout the years.
The fact that no prior experience or training is required to captain one of these tricky craft, combined with the sheer volume of traffic on the river and the numerous pinch points along its relatively narrow course, all contribute to the increased chances of crashes occurring. These can happen even during the quieter times of the year, on the widest parts of the river, as the video demonstrates:
During the summer months especially, term is over, schools are out and tourists flock to Cambridge in their droves to experience the culture, famed architecture and of course the punting. This provides ample opportunity for local pranksters. One common prank is for students to steal the poles of tourists as they punt below the college bridges, leaving them stranded mid-river. The perpetrators wait until a punt reappears from underneath the bridge that they are waiting on, and as the pole is raised up out of the water, they reach out from the bridge and grab hold of the top. Further encouragement to release the pole can come in the form of a quick dousing of icy cold water, which often shocks the unsuspecting victim to release the pole and float off helplessly down the river. Fortunately, all self-hire punts are equipped with paddles to assist in the event of emergency.
Another prank, that tends to happen only on the warmest of summer days, on the stretch of the river known as the Granta, that wends its way upstream to Grantchester, is the practice of ‘tombstoning’ or ‘bombing’ punts as they pass. This involves jumping from bridges into the water as close as possible to the passing boats, in the hope of splashing the passengers. A risky prank at the best of times that requires a good aim and the help of lookouts.
Some other legendary pranks that are often recounted by seasoned punt guides include the dangling of cars (that have actually been punted down the river) under bridges.
During the summer, students may occasionally organise unofficial punting races. In addition to these, more formally organised charity punt races have become more commonplace of late. Visitors who happen to be punting along the river at the same time may unwittingly find themselves amongst a flotilla of frantically punting youngsters.
Cardboard boat races
However an even greater spectacle is the now legendary, Cambridge University cardboard boat race, that takes places at the end of the summer term. The course itself is quite short and makes use of the wide section of the river near Jesus lock that is rarely frequented by many punters. It draws huge crowds to watch intrepid teams of and individual students take to the water in their home made contraptions, some of which are marvels of engineering. The biggest challenge for many appears to be simply maintaining the structural integrity of their boat, rather than any serious attempt to complete the short length of the course at any real speed.
For all of these reasons, if you’re hoping for a relaxing trip on the river, it is advisable for beginners to avoid self-hiring punts during the busiest times of the tourist season.