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Cambridge's tranquil River Cam turns turbulent

Cambridge's tranquil River Cam turns turbulent

On the surface, it is the stuff of English postcards _ champagne-swilling tourists gliding down the River Cam and listening to the lore of Cambridge University.
But a nasty undercurrent runs through this river, an otherwise placid waterway that snakes past Cambridge's many gothic buildings.
Competition for the rich tourist trade has increased recently among operators of the historic wooden tourist boats called punts _ a trade estimated at 2.5 million pounds ($4 million) a year. In some cases, the scramble for profits has turned ugly.
This month, two boats were cut to pieces with an electric saw _ the apparent work of a punting rival. In other incidents, operators have cut moorings with bolt cutters, chained punts together or sunk boats to sabotage each other's business. Last year, one man dangled a competitor over the railing at Magdalene Bridge.
"They've been grabbing each other's throats, throwing drinks over each other; it's been out of control," said Tom Lohman, a 30-year-old punter who plies his trade on the 14-mile (23 kilometer) River Cam.
Punts _ narrow wooden boats piloted by guides using wooden poles _ have long been a popular feature of Cambridge life.
The guides wearing tapered vests can be seen steering the boats across the shallow river year round, cracking jokes or charming their passengers with anecdotes about Isaac Newton and other famous alumni.
Tours go for 10 to 15 pounds per person, although prices can be higher for special tours. Those interested in steering the punts on their own can also rent a boat for about 15 pounds an hour.
Punt guides are usually young, although most aren't Cambridge students and don't work year round. Remuneration tends to hover around Britain's minimum wage (about 5 pounds an hour or 12,000 pounds a year; $19,500) although Lohman said there was more money to be made in the busy summer months.
The Cam Conservancy, the body charged with managing navigation on the waterway, said competition has increased, in part, because it can't limit the number of punts on the river. Cambridge City Council said scuffling between punters has generated a flood of complaints from tourists and colleges.
"We've put an awful lot of staff time into dealing with this," said Alastair Roberts, the council's safer communities manager who said the body is now devoting more money to enforcing regulations on mooring and soliciting business. "It is a significant issue for the city."
There are more than 200 traditional punts and nearly 60 of the newer wide-beam boats meant to carry a dozen tourists at a time, according to the Cam Conservancy. The number of boats has swelled in the past five years.
Conservancy deputy manager Jonathan Wakefield said that while overcrowding had become a problem in the past five years, his organization's remit was limited to verifying a punt's safety.
"Even in this past year it's gotten more and more tense," said Dan Scott Lintott, 17, as he guided his punt down the river.
Although incidents are often hidden from tourists or observers, many say the tension is palpable.
"That guy gives me a lot of animosity," Scott Lintott said, jabbing his pole into the bottom and pausing to look at another punter _ a blond man with an upturned collar.
Ann Turner, a 65-year-old from Saltaire in northern England, said some of the promoters hustling tourists on to the river were aggressive. She said she was approached four times.
"There does seem to be a crowd of them," she said. "Some of them are a little too much."


Updated : 2021-04-19 03:05 GMT+08:00