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August 28, 2009

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Fight for River Cam tourists turns ugly

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 (US$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 river.

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, but prices can be higher for special tours. Those keen 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 of 5 pounds an hour or 12,000 pounds a year.


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