A-punting and a-grunting we will go

Except for Chris, none of us had ever punted. But just days before, Thad had established a strong desire among our group of visiting graduate and undergraduate students to experience the quintessential Oxford experience. Now Thad was in Scotland for the weekend, so Chris had led seven of us across University Park to the banks of the Cherwell River. Here we could rent punts. Our plan was to punt down, have lunch, and punt back. Surely we could spare three hours from writing our papers for a walk and a punt!

We watched other punters carefully and waited quite some time for two boats to free up. It looked simple: Stick the pole in the water, push against the muddy bottom, and move leisurely downstream. Chris shared two important rules of punting: always twist the pole or it will get stuck in the mud, and steer the punt by dragging the pole like a rudder behind the boat. Chris took two students in his punt, and the rest of us climbed into the other one, certain that between the four of us we could figure out how to do this.

Joe took the lead and quickly discovered it wasn't as easy as it looked. He hadn't had much boating experience. He kept trying to direct the boat by pushing the pole into the river bottom instead of dragging it. We moved back and forth, heading from one shore to the next. The natives on the banks were not sympathetic, and his hard work was rewarded with smart remarks from onlookers. We tried to coach him, but all of us were aware that we didn't really know what we were talking about - and our turn for embarrassment might be next.

Joe put all his manly effort into it and managed to get us beyond the first bridge and past the taunts of those at the dock. I offered to take over, convinced by watching other boats that my experience canoeing would pay off. It did, and the boat moved forward in a straight line, but not very quickly. It's very hard work, this pushing with all one's might to get some power, but soon I established a rhythm of pushing and dragging the pole like a rudder. We weren't moving very quickly, and Chris's punt had to come back several times to encourage us forward.

It occurred to me, as I sweated and strained, that punting is only leisurely for those sitting in the bottom of the boat, leaning against cushions and trailing their hands idly in the water. For the punter, it's hard work that requires much concentration, as well as the ability to duck quickly when branches hang too low over the water. The most difficult job my passengers faced was fending off a mother swan and her babies who were convinced we had lunch on board.

We didn't have any food on board, though, and we watched enviously as others enjoyed picnic lunches as they punted. Our lunch waited at the pub, we reassured ourselves. Calley took her turn and did quite well also, except for a few close associations with bushes on the banks.

But by the time we finally reached the pub, it had taken us an hour and a quarter to get there. We were paying for the punts at the full weekend hourly rate of 10, and we didn't have enough in our budgets to rent them for more than two hours.

After a short rest, we were back in our boats. On the return trip, the current gave us a hand. Jeannie took the pole for the first time, and we discovered in her a punter with both power and precision. We moved swiftly down the river when suddenly the pole stuck fast in the mud. We continued to move with the current, but the pole stayed behind. Some birds seemed to be laughing at us from the bushes, and punters on the river definitely were. One kind boatload tried to turn around to help us (they had been smart enough to bring a paddle with them from the boathouse), but there was too much traffic. The Cherwell was unusually crowded.

Using our hands, we paddled to the shore, grabbed hold of plants, and pulled ourselves along until we were even with the pole. We all pushed out, and soon Jeannie had the pole back in her capable hands. Despite the time this took, we still managed to reach the dock just a little over our two-hour goal. The only challenge left was seven English, history, and art majors trying to divide up the bill evenly.

By then we were hot, tired, and hungry. Our three-hour trip had turned into a four-hour trip. Of course, when Thad and the others got back from Scotland, all we told them was that we had gone punting and that they would have to go, too. What we didn't tell them was that we weren't saying this because it was the lark it's supposed up to be, but because it's one of those rites-of-passage experiences. We'd lived through it, and now they'd have to, too.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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