Punters taken for a ride in river war

Boat owners sink competitors to win trade on the Cam
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The Independent Online
The days of happy families of punters respectfully doffing their boaters as they glide down the sleepy River Cam are gone. Nowadays, it seems, the river folk are more likely to throw their boaters at one another. And it's all because of rivalry among punt proprietors.

Cambridge is home to pushy punting pimps, who, by 10am, can be seen marching across the meadows, desperate to ply their trade. Unsuspecting tourists are badgered before they have stepped off their coaches; foreign students say they are taken aback by the punters' "Mediterranean manner".

Trouble flared up earlier this year when Cambridge City Council woke up to the fact that Independent Punts, a small company with seven boats, had been operating from outside the Spade and Bucket pub for the past six years without paying a penny in rent. The mooring site was promptly put out for tender and won by Scudamores Boat Yard, the city's oldest punting company. Both sides have since been driven to desperate measures - stealing customers, sinking punts, building barricades and hurling abuse.

Scudamores, which has been lending punts since 1910, tried to block Independent Punts' access to the river by chaining a string of the boats together at Laundress Green. But Independent Punts has taken to settling all hire payments in their boats in an effort to circumvent the rules.

"Don't exchange money on land, will you," whispered Nick Maseychik, manager of Independent Punts, to a novice embarking on his first voyage. "It's a sackable offence," he explained. "We've been issued with commercial river licences by Cam Conservators, so if we do all our transactions actually on the water we're not touting on council land." Independent Punts fears its seven-year-old business will soon by swallowed up by the bigger fish. Meanwhile, the petty feud is getting increasingly personal.

Said Mr Maseychik: "James MacNaghten [Scudamores' proprietor] is trying to buy up the whole bloody river. He's already got three-quarters of the site. He's a rich boy passing through town who saw lots of money and is gobbling it up."

James MacNaghten is unapologetic. "Elliot (owner of Independent Punts) blames us for loss of his mooring, but it's his own fault. It's between him and the council." Surveying his fleet of 140 punts, he added: "We're not into poaching moorings. If Independent Punts had been allowed to tender, we would not have bid."