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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Life Divided: Punting

Jamie Onslow and Anna Elliot meander off in different directions over punting

For: Jamie Onslow

For most of my life I was unable to enjoy nautical pursuits due to my nervous disposition. On family holidays, I wouldn’t go sailing for fear of being carried off by the wind. I could never swim in the sea in case I was ravaged by mackerel. When all my friends went through puberty and began to engage in piracy on the high seas, I stayed in the library, worried that I would stand out without hook hands, which many of my peers were having surgically attached as soon as they turned eighteen.

Arriving in Oxford, I saw no reason why anything would change. I watched enviously as many of my cohort rose to positions of power within the college rowing team, thereby acquiring vast amounts of social capital and blazers. I wished that I too could prance around Oxford in tight-fitting leggings. Instead, I hid behind potted plants in the Bridge smoking area, lest I get trampled underfoot by the University rowing team. I was resigned to this fate as Trinity term got under way, right up until the moment I discovered punting.

Within minutes of pushing off from Magdalen Bridge, I was sold. The experience was so magnificent that I right there and then bought the rental punt. I spent nearly all of my term on the punt. Instead of cycling around Oxford, I would punt instead, forcing my way down the High Street with nothing but a wooden pole and a tub of grease. As autumn and then winter came around, most of my fellow students abandoned Oxford’s waterways, but I persisted, poling through frozen waters, desperately chasing that indescribable punting high. Little else now interests me in life, and soon I will leave Oxford for good. My punt is loaded with provisions, and I shall finally have the life of adventure I always dreamed of—not on the high seas, but upon the various canals and rivers of the Midlands, far from the sea and all the mackerel that live in it.

Against: Anna Elliot

Ah, punting. Rather like attending lavish balls and cycling through cobbled streets, punting is often seen as a typical pursuit of the Oxford student. In theory it is the perfect relaxing pastime, drawing to mind a vision of students gliding serenely down river.

Yet this common conception is utterly misguided. The whole process is fraught with potential dangers. As straightforward as it may appear to the layperson, steering a punt is tricky, and requires a certain amount of technique. No matter how well prepared you imagine yourself to be, inevitably all knowledge of how to steer miraculously disappears as soon as the punt starts to move. With tension mounting, you find yourselves arguing about how to navigate away from the bank. The risk of a dangerous head-on collision increases as other equally unsteady punts begin to fill up the river, removing all elements of tranquillity from the trip. Tourists gape open-mouthed as you flounder, the boat wobbling and threatening to plunge you into the icy water.

Even if you manage to get the punt stable, the weather is equally likely to ruin your experience. An English summer is more likely to be grey than glorious and, stuck in a punt, you are unable to escape the inevitable May showers. With your picnic provisions ruined, you find yourselves sitting cramped and shivering on an uncomfortable wooden seat. Longing to return to college for a hot meal and a hot shower, you begin to question the value of punting. At this moment, you realise that walking essentially gives you all the same benefits of punting (relaxation in the fresh air, luscious greenery, Instagram-worthy photo opportunities) without the stress, and with the ability to escape the rain. As a result, when your friends try to convince you to celebrate the end of exams with a leisurely punt down the river, you know your answer.

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