Punting for Pleasure

On a side trip to Cambridge, England, I saw a bunch of people poling punts on the river Cam. I thought I gotta try it. So, I hired a punt and they handed me a pole, and I gave it a go.

Punts are big and heavy wooden crafts. The hire boat was at least 3 ft wide and 20 ft long, square on both ends. The punter stands on a deck about 4 ft long. It had a flat bottom and not much rocker if any So I was further up off the water than when I pole my canoe, and leaning it had no discernable affect on turning. I couldn’t lean it much anyway.

The pole was aluminum, 16 ft long, and over 2" in diameter. I estimate it weighed ten pounds. It was set up to use one end, reinforced for bottom contact on one end and set up for gripping on the other.

It is instructive to see how risk is handled in other countries. No PFDs were offered or required. There was no safety briefing or instruction given. Just, take this punt, here’s the pole, and they shove you off. The water depth was 6 to 8 ft. With slow current.

There were many punts out. Some were touring with groups of eight or ten in larger punts with professional polers, and the rest were renters like myself. Some had no idea how to make the boats steer, were banging into other boats and the retaining walls, or we’re getting turned sideways to the current.

I started off in a square stance, like in a canoe, but noticed the pros stand at an angle and “face their work.” this seemed to work better. I tried some typical polling techniques, like kayak paddling and wind-mill retrievals, but the size of the pole and the proximity of other punters discouraged me from doing much of this. I was able to make the punt go well enough, but have to say it was discouraging that young guys were able to make bigger punts, loaded with ten people, go as fast as I could make my rental go.

So, punting was interesting, and I am glad I gave it a go. But I was just reading the Wikipedia article about it and noted that punts are now used almost exclusively as pleasure crafts. Given how hard it was to make the punt go, I question why anybody would do that for pleasure. It is way more fun to pole a canoe.


my scuba diving days the international forums frequently had comments regarding the law suit crazy nature of Americans. Apparently in many countries around the world living life is at your own risk. Here in America we seem to prefer being protected/shielded from all risk or have legal recourse if something goes not so well.

Any idea why they go with such a large diameter pole, Chip?

Punting goes way, way back. My guess
about the poles is that in the 1800s, they simply did not have wood that was strong enough and stiff enough if it was made as thin as are modern poles. Of course they did not have aluminum or fiberglass, and if they had thought of laminating poles, they lacked glues sufficiently resistant to water.

Probably tradition has kept poles thick and heavy. I believe there may still be competitive punting, and that would be the place to look for thinner, lighter, stronger poles. I recall competition punts being narrow and light.

absolutely true
In most of the world, 20 people hanging off the back of a bongo truck barrelling down the road at unsafe speeds is pretty normal.

Probably history / tradition
First off, meant to post this to discussion, not advice. Sorry.

As to the poles, I suspect G2d is correct. Historically, punts were probably used to move a load, and a beefy pole would have been appreciated. Also, the length of the pole argues for thicker stronger material to reduce energy lost to bending the pole. And, what they had was wood.

I don’t know if the water was always as deep, but the punter is standing higher than we do in canoes, the water is pretty deep, and you need a long pole. I wondered why they didn’t just row the punts. A possible answer is because of traffic congestion. If there were many punts on this narrow river the oars would be in the way as boats passed along side each other.

Lastly, if you are in the business of renting punts and poles, you might prefer to rent something that is resistant to damage by unskilled polers. That argues for a heavy mondo strength pole.


A punt the dreadnought is featured in Arthur Ransome’s books set on the Norfolk broads