River rage and a hit-and-run punting incident

The world of punting sounds sedate but a recent hit-and-run has revealed dark currents beneath the surface
  • @johnhenrywalsh

You know that old joke? Q: What goes clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop, bang-bang, clip-clop, clip-clop? A: An Amish drive-by shooting.

There’s something similarly quaint about the news this week that a 70-year-old man had his leg broken in a “hit-and-run punting incident”.

Punting? You mean that activity in which chaps in boaters employ a nine-foot pole to propel a long flat boat ve-ry slow-ly through the waters of the Cam (in Cambridge) or Cherwell (in Oxford) while their girlfriends recline on cushions, looking languidly romantic in straw hats and Monsoon frocks? Well sorry, it ain’t like that any more. 

Over the past decade, operators of tourist punts have become more cut-throat and competitive; their exploits have turned the overcrowded river into something closer to a dodgem cars arena than a haven of tranquility.

Two years ago, an 18-month-old child needed plastic surgery when his thumb was crushed by recklessly steered punts. A four-year-old girl almost lost her hand when a ferry punt collided with a self-hire vessel.

It’s not just the renters, though.

Cambridge university student rowing “eights” (whom you’d think would know better) have reportedly been exhibiting hooliganish behaviour, practising “racing starts”, crashing into motorcruisers, sharking between riverboats and their moorings, even shouting “We don’t care about you!” to chaps on the towpath. What can be done? The Cam Conservators, who are charged with keeping peace on the river, have come down like a ton of bricks on the offending waterfolk.

They’re drawing up (oo-er) a list (I’m shaking now) of new etiquette rules (no! Not that!) which may have (for pity’s sake, no more!) penalties attached.

“There has been some really quite boorish behaviour, with people who were in the wrong  not apologising and just being rude,” said a spokesman, devastatingly.