Sun, Aug 23, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Cambridge ‘punting war’ gets dirty as boat sawn in half


Sam Matthews of The Punting Company was angry.

“It’s provocative,” he said. “It’s somebody hoping to start a war to get rid of us. It’s the competition, but which competition? I have my suspicions, but the best thing is not to retaliate.”

Matthews is the latest victim of what locals call the “punt wars,” a series of disputes between rival operators in the £2.5 million (US$4.1 million) punt industry in Cambridge, southeast England. The battles have reached new heights after two of Matthews’ boats were found sawn through from top to bottom.

The nighttime attack is the most audacious in the spate of clashes that have disrupted the tranquility of the river Cam and prompted calls for a cap on the number of boats competing for custom from the 4 million people who visit the city each year. Observers say punting is now in danger of becoming a tawdry industry that will lower the city’s reputation.

The panoply of weapons used in the punting wars is said to include stink bombs thrown from bridges to render a rival’s boat inoperable, washing up liquid squirted to make it too slippery for the punter to stand, and bolt-cutters to snap mooring chains. But never, until now, an electric jigsaw.

“If it’s happened to me,” Matthews said, “who’s next?”

Matthews, whose independent company jostles for space on the Cam with century-old established punting companies, more recent cooperatives, and “mobilers,” so named because they have no established moorings, estimates damage to his boats in excess of £10,000.

Rod Ingersent, general manager of Scudamore’s, the oldest and biggest of the punting companies, described the attack as “a new departure.”

“We’ve had argy-bargy, touts fighting over tourists, pushing and shoving, yes. But everyone is a bit shocked because it is not something we have known before,” he said.

The growing number of punt operators employ touts who hunt in packs to talk tourists onto a chauffeured tour in huge 12-seater punt ferries at £14 per head.

In the last three years, police have investigated 31 altercations between touts. One was said to have involved a knife, and in another a woman broke her hip when she was caught up in a brawl between touts.

James Bayliss-Smith, a freelance cameraman and part-time Cam punter who is making a documentary on the “Punt Wars,” believes there should be a cap on numbers.

“Or better still, a ban on the over-sized ‘ferry’ punts. Unchecked, these behemoths have turned a serene and beautiful river into a log-jammed motorway,” he said.

Cam Conservators, the body responsible for managing the river since 1710, grants licenses to punt operators, but as long as the boats are properly constructed and a fee paid, they have no power to refuse a license.

Two recent developments are said to have provoked the sawing of the two punts: the “battle of the Middle Steps” and Cambridge City Council’s attempts to control the number of punt touts.

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