Commonly confused with venetian gondolas, the boats used for Cambridge’s most famous tourist attraction are called ‘punts’. Punts have been in use in the region for many hundreds of years and have been growing in popularity in Cambridge as a leisure activity since the 1900s.
Upon first impression, punts and Gondolas appear to be similar, both are narrow wooden boats designed for shallow waters, where the driver stands behind the passengers. However, after a closer inspection, there are many differences between punts and gondolas.
Punts in Cambridge
Punts are flat bottom boats designed to navigate through shallow waters. Unlike the curbed hull of a regular boat, The flat bottom on a punt prevents the boat from getting caught on the river bed. The word punt derives from the latin word ‘ponos’, which means ‘flat-bottom’ boat.
Boats such as these have been in use for thousands of years across the world, in any location with shallow marshy water. In England, especially the marshy Fens of East Anglia, punts have been in use since the middle ages for transport, fishing & hunting.
Unlike an oar, which propels the boat by punching against the water, a punt driver (traditionally known as ‘chauffeurs’ but most commonly known as ‘pushers’) pushes the boat with a pole to propel themselves forward. These poles need to touch the bottom of the river, meaning they are often around 5m in length (or just longer than the deepest stretch of the river). If the pole cannot touch the bottom of the river then the boat will come to a stop and become stranded.
Using a pole rather than an oar also allows the boat to manoeuvre easily through tight spaces, as the angle or the boat can be changed quickly, depending on the angle of the pole. This is especially important along the river cam during a busy day, as you must avoid hundreds of boats along a small narrow river.
Poles were traditionally made from lightweight wood however most poles are now made from aluminium, which are much lighter and less prone to damage. Even though they are heavier, many people still prefer the more traditional wooden poles, especially during the winter months, when aluminium poles become very cold.
Gondolas in venice
Gondolas are associated with Venice in Italy. Originally used for people as transport and trade along the venetian lagoon since the 11th Century. Gondolas were used for leisure in the 16th Century, whereas Cambridge is relatively new 1910.
Unlike punts, Gondolas use a single oar to propel the boat forwards, rather than using a pole to push off the river bed. The use of an oar means that gondolas do not need to be on shallow waters. Oar is called ‘remo’ and sits on an oarlock ‘forcola’, which allows multiple positions of the oar.
Length of the boat is asymmetrical to make the single oar more efficient. Gondolas are much longer than punts, often around 11m in length.
Many gondolas are elegantly crafted and decorated more extensively than punts as they were at one time used as a status symbol between venetian families and members of aristocracy. Gondolas during this time had detailed carvings, golden embellishment and Some traditional gondolas were previously fitted with a small cabin, known as a ‘feize’, allowing the passenger privacy during the trip. Punts on the much more robust and designed for constant collisions along the River Cam.
All gondolas are now painted black to prevent competition between companies and drivers must wear black or red. Many of the punting companies in Cambridge have a distinctive colour and uniform.
Like the Cambride punts, venetian gondolas are now mostly used for sightseeings, however a few are still in use for trade. Gondola drivers are known as ‘gondoliers’, which often sing to passengers. It’s very rare to see a willing punter sing to their customers.