A punt is a flat-bottomed boat, typically used in small rivers and canals. It is propelled by pushing the river bed with a long pole. Punting is a popular tourist and leisure activity of the rivers of the university towns of Oxford and Cambridge, England.

In Oxford and Cambridge there are many commercial organisations that make punts available for hire to the general public; it is a popular tourist activity. Some colleges hire their punts to the general public, most let only students use them. There are a few punts owned by private individuals registered on the Thames and River Cam.

Punting is a more popular tourist activity in Cambridge, because many very attractive old colleges are built adjacent to the river, whereas the rivers in Oxford are generally further from the old colleges and pass largely through parks and fields. However, the popularity of punting beside the old colleges in Cambridge produces significant congestion on this relatively narrow stretch of the river during the peak tourist season, leading to frequent collisions between inexperienced punters. These collisions are mostly harmless, but can occasionally cause the punter to lose balance and fall into the river, causing rather more amusement to bystanders than to the tourist who may not have a change of clothes. Some tourists may prefer the calmer experience that the rivers in Oxford (or the upper river in Cambridge) have to offer.

Punting technique

The user stands at the stern and tries not to fall into the water while holding the (rather heavy) wooden pole (known as a quant). In Cambridge the punter is balanced on a flat wooden platform, whereas in Oxford, where the punts are shaped slightly differently, the correct position is to stand on the slatted decking in the punt (many visitors to Oxford incorrectly propel the punt from the raised end that should be the bow). A naive attempt at propulsion by pushing with the pole against the mud at the bottom of the river is likely to result in the punt's moving in a circle, or heading constantly into one of the banks. Usually, numerous spectators will be present on bridges and banks and will find it greatly amusing, but consuming a sufficient amount of alcohol beforehand will increase the punter's confidence and sense of accomplishment, regardless of the actual merit of the performance.

One better technique is actually to use the pole as a rudder, letting it drag in the water behind the punt and moving it left or right to steer. Owing to the length of this rudder, this allows quite large changes in direction, useful if one is about to collide. Steering and propulsion are alternated.

The rudder method of steering can be slow (as while you are using the pole as a rudder you're not using it to propel the punt forward). A faster method, requiring more skill, strength, and judgment, is to drop pole slightly away from the punt (turning right for right handers) or slightly under the punt (turning left for right handers) and push backwards as normal. The generated torque will rotate the punt, probably too much if you are not experienced.

One particularly challenging aspect of punting is steering the boat underneath a wide bridge. The punter must judge when to propel the boat last before going under the bridge; if he does it too late, the quant will not fit under the bridge and the punter will have to let go of it (or, if he does not, this would knock him into the river); if he does it too early, the boat will lose its momentum and come to a halt underneath the bridge, and the punter will be unable to continue punting (except, of course, by pushing off the bridge, which is however considered cheating by many).

Alternatively a student can be employed to do the punting.

Bridge Hopping

For the more adventurous, another aspect of punting is known as "bridge hopping". On approaching the bridge the hopper stands in the bow facing forward ready to leap out of the punt and grab on to the bridge. As the punt moves under the bridge the hopper rushes to the other side, and leaps back in. (According to some traditions, if the hopper is too slow to leap back into the punt before it passes, he/she is honor-bound to leap off the bridge anyway.) Hazards include injury to passengers as the hopper leaps back into the boat as well as awkward landings both in and out of the boat. Bridge hopping is practised at the hopper's own risk and is best practised away from colleges where porters can be somewhat irate.