A traditional punt has no tiller nor any provision for oars, sails, or motor; instead it is propelled and directed with a pole. Poles for pleasure punts are normally made of spruce, or aluminium. A normal pole is about 12–16 feet (4–5 m) long and weighs about 10 lb (5 kg). In both Oxford and Cambridge, long 16 ft (4.9 m) poles tend to be used exclusively. The bottom of the pole is fitted with a metal "shoe", a rounded lump of metal to protect the end – the shoe is sometimes made in the shape of a swallow tail.
Traditional wooden poles are preferred by many experienced punters; they are more sympathetic on the hands (at least when in good condition; a splintered surface is less so) and make less noise on contact with the river bottom or the punt compared with an aluminium pole. Aluminium poles are considerably cheaper and stronger, so may be preferred by punt stations offering punts for hire to inexperienced punters; however, it is normally possible to choose either type.
Racing poles are generally a great deal lighter than pleasure punt poles, and aluminium is the preferred material. It is usual to carry one or two spare poles in a race, so that one can keep punting if a pole gets stuck or is dropped. Pleasure punts generally have a paddle so that a stuck or dropped pole can be retrieved, and inexperienced punters may also use the paddle to help steer and propel the punt.
Punting is not as easy as it looks. As in rowing, you soon learn how to get along and handle the craft, but it takes long practice before you can do this with dignity and without getting the water all up your sleeve.
— Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (1889)
The basic technique of punting is to shove the boat along with a pole by pushing directly on the bed of the river or lake. In the 1870s, when punting for pleasure first became popular, the normal approach was for the passengers to sit at the stern on cushions placed against the till, and for the punter to have the run of the rest of the boat. The punter started at the bow, planted the pole, and then walked towards the stern, shoving the punt forwards. This is known as "running" the punt. It was the normal technique used to move heavy fishing punts. As pleasure punts became lighter, it became more usual for the punter to stand still – normally towards the stern – while shoving. This is called "pricking" the punt. Pricking has the advantages that the punter is less likely to walk off the end of the punt inadvertently, and that more of the punt can be used to carry passengers.
For pleasure punting, the best way to learn is to start out in a boat with a competent punter in order to watch him or her at work. After this there is no substitute for extensive hands-on practice on different stretches of river. For racing punting it is best to join a club, and to work on one's balance. Some punt racers practise by punting in canoes.
One of the keys to punting well is that the steering is done during the stroke, rather than by using the pole as a paddle or rudder; steering in this way requires less physical effort if the punter stands in the centre of the boat (or at least as far forward as is compatible with not wetting the passengers). Once the punt is underway, it is easier to keep it in a straight line if the weight in the punt is all on the same side, in order to tilt the punt slightly and to form a keel. For racing, therefore, the leading foot is placed to one side against the knee that is at, or just forward of, the centre of the boat, and does not move from that position; only the rear foot moves during the stroke. For pleasure punting the precise stance does not matter so much; it is more important that the punter remains relaxed and does not shove too hard.
Two rather different traditions have grown up in Oxford and Cambridge: in Cambridge most punters stand on the till and punt with the open end forward, while in Oxford they stand inside the boat and punt with the till forward. Since the rivers in both cities are narrow and often crowded, the opportunities for punting "at full pressure" are rare, so these variations in stance are of little practical importance. Nevertheless the traditions are often strongly held; students at Oxford and Cambridge frequently believe that theirs is the only correct style, to the extent that the till end is often known as the "Cambridge End", and the other as the "Oxford End".
Punting around the world
Traditional "Thames" punts are also popular on a few other rivers outside England. These include:
- The Mutha River in Pune, India at the Boat Club (BC) of the College of Engineering, Pune. Punting here is mainly a leisure activity, but there are also punting activities organized as part of the annual regatta, including the spectacular "Punt Formation" where several illuminated punts are used to create a night time display.
- Along the Cherry Creek, in Denver, Colorado in the USA. The Greenway Foundation sponsors the "Venice on the Creek" program in this area from June to August. Despite the allusion to gondolas, the boats involved are chauffeured fibreglass punts made in Cambridge.
The technique of using a pole to propel a narrow boat in confined waters has developed in many other cultures, especially in marshy or swampy areas where transport on land is difficult. These include:
- The Okavango Delta in Botswana, using dug-out canoes called makoros. The boats are punted from the rear and are used for getting around the shallow waters of the swamp. A makoro's shape is determined by the tree from which it was made, and the punter simply stands in the bottom. Bucket-seats are sometimes added for passengers' comfort.
- The Marais Poitevin, an area of marsh land criss-crossed with canals north of La Rochelle in Poitou-Charentes, France. Here the boats (called barques) are somewhat shorter than a Thames punt, and may have a pointed bow and stern. The punting pole (la pigouille) may be a rough cut branch or coppice pole. Originally used for transporting goods and livestock, today boats are available for hire to tourists.
- In the marshy Overijssel, the Netherlands there is a boat called the punter. They are about 6 metres (20 ft) in length and have a pointed bow and stern. Originally used for transporting agricultural goods, turf and livestock, most newly built boats are either privately owned or hired to tourists.
- Depending on water depth punting is often used to propel boats called "Weidling" in Switzerland and Germany. These boats are very similar in design to Thames punts. On the River Neckar in Tübingen, Germany, punting boats called Stocherkahn is a university tradition. These boats are larger and deeper, and have a narrower bow and stern than Thames punts. Bench seats for passengers are provided down each side, and the punter stands on a small triangular deck at the stern. There are about 50 Stocherkähne at Tübingen, most of them owned by student fraternities of the University, the Studentenverbindungen. There is a traditional annual race for these boats in June, the Stocherkahnrennen. It is a light-hearted event; the winning fraternity or other student club has to give a party (at its fraternity house) and the losers have to drink a glass of Cod liver oil, as well as to organize the following year's race.
- Punting had a resurgence in Scotland in the 1980s as the Honourable Society of Edinburgh Boaters took to the waters of the Union Canal on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The Society staged regattas and engaged in the Scottish Boat Race with the Cambridge University Dampers Club.
- Bamboo rafts of proportions similar to punts' are used on various rivers in northern Thailand; the technique for punting them is identical to that used in Cambridge.
- The "takasebune" boats are found in various parts of Japan. The canals developed for such boats are often named takasegawa. The fast punting boats for passengers in Tokyo are called "choki" or "choki-bune".
- Rivington, Robert T. (1983). Punting: Its History and Techniques. Oxford: R. T. Rivington. ISBN 0-9508045-2-5.
- Rivington, Robert T. (1982). Punts and Punting. Oxford: R. T. Rivington. ISBN 0-9508045-0-9.
- March, Edgar James (1969). Sailing drifters : the story of the herring luggers of England, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. ISBN 0-7153-4679-2.
- Mannering, Julian, ed. (2003). The Chatham Directory of Inshore Craft. Chatham Publishing. ISBN 1-86176-029-9.
- According to March and The Chatham directory (see above) there were punts peculiar to Happisburgh (Norfolk), Yarmouth (Norfolk), Broadstairs (Kent), Dover (Kent), Hastings (East Sussex), Eastbourne (East Sussex), Itchen Ferry (Hampshire), and Falmouth (Cornwall).
- "Wolf Boats". Wolf Boats. Retrieved 2012-08-13.
- Rivington 1983, p.1
- Rivington 1983, pp.5–9
- Rivington 1983, p.160
- Rivington 1983, p.10
- Rivington 1983, pl. 40
- Rivington 1983, p.188–9
- "Venice on the Creek". 2007-12-14. Retrieved 2007-12-14. This site contains the following Q&A "Q: Is Venice on the Creek the same as Punt the Creek? A: Yes we changed our name to Venice on the Creek to better describe what we do."
- "Messing about in the River", The Glasgow Herald 15 April 1985