Venice is known for its beautiful and romantic waterways constantly teaming with gondolas powered by men and women effortlessly stroking through the streams. In Oxford, there is a similar tradition called “punting”. Very different from the football kick completed on fourth downs, punting is using an extremely long metal pole to push a five-person raft through the shallow parts of the River Thames. The raft is an elongated rectangle and has two bench seats facing each other with a slightly elevated platform where the punter stands to power the boat. The punting vessel also comes with a small oar for steering and being used to try to decrease the jolt of smashing into the stonewalls of the river.
So this adventure obviously sounds peaceful! Just casually rowing up and down the river with some friends; I mean, the gondoliers make it look so easy, right? Nope. Being a true Oxfordian now, I felt as if I should at least try out this tradition. A group of us made it down to the river yesterday afternoon and although the weather was beautiful, dark clouds were ahead for our trip. Because we had twelve people and the boats were only able to fit four or five, we broke up into three boats.
Our ‘punting master’, using that term very loosely because he gave us absolutely no instructions on how to punt, gave us a good route to follow down the river. It was a pretty easy loop where we rowed down a little way, circled around this little island, and back to our originals starting point. We had one hour to get this done or otherwise face having to pay more for an extra half-hour. We weren’t worried about running over time because the trip was short, but solely based on our initial launch from land, I should’ve been more anxious. It turns out pushing a boat through water in a straight line when you’re standing at the back of it, is very difficult. The first punter in our group, the brave soul, absolutely rocked. She shoved the boat down the river, not quickly, but did well avoiding all of the other things filling the river. We came head on with real, motor boats several times and she did well to not have us die; however, when it came time to turn around and come back, we ran into some issues. First, we got stuck in a tree under a bridge where the punting stick was too long to fit under and we had to use this tiny oar to paddle and push our way out of this brush. Then on the way back, our group struggled to get the boat in a straight line; watching our group go down the river would be similar to watching a toy racecar that had both its left wheels broken: we were simply bouncing off the right side of this brick wall over, and over again using the oar to push off the grey-brick wall when we inevitably got stuck.
Even though our total distance traveled was less than 300 yards, it took us all the way up to our full hour to get back. Sadly, I didn’t have enough time to even try to punt because I was in charge of using the oar. Because we only struggled to turn left, I was constantly rowing on the same side and I woke up this morning with an embarrassingly sore shoulder. Punting is a fantastic way to spend a summer afternoon in Oxford, but next time I’ll hire a professional.