River Cherwell, England - Xavar Bangash

My name is Xavar Bangash. I’m an 18-year-old student at the University of Toronto in Life Sciences. I identify myself as a Pakistani-Canadian and I live in Georgetown, Ontario, and his is my Watermark Story.

Punting is an activity for the purpose of leisure that most often occurs in the areas around Cambridge and Oxford University in the United Kingdom. It involves a small boat carrying 5-6 people maximum, and a large metal rod that pushes off the bed of the river and also steers, similar to the typical romantic boat rides depicted in Venice, Italy. This summer I had the wonderful experience of participating in punting as I was completing summer courses in medicine at Oxford. A group of about 30 students including myself, from all over the world, from Australia to India to Texas, set out to punt. When we got to River Cherwell in north Oxford, I was amazed at the water body. It was still but wavy, like a candle fire, but was dark in colour as the bottom was far from visible. I was told this river site has been used for punting for many years and given the University was founded in 1096, many years could mean centuries and the water fit the centuries old description. It was almost as if the water was taken straight from Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or some other fictional literature. Having that dark mysterious vibe to it. The course director warned us to not fall in the water at all costs as it is extremely dirty and the director explained he himself once fell in and was sick for a lengthier time than usual illnesses. I took note and pretended not to hear what I just heard as it would make me only more nervous. The water was scary enough. A small dock ran along the side of the club house restaurant, and contained maybe 60 or so small, long bodied boats that looked rather easy to fall off of. I set one foot on the boat and balancing was impossible at first, one foot just wouldn’t cut it so I jumped and both feet landed on the punters deck (where one stands with the rod and does the manual labor of punting). The wobble of the boat was hysterical. It was ridiculous how thin and small the boat was and that it was holding 5 full sized humans. Only one person can stand at once; otherwise balance equilibrium was essentially unreachable. All passengers must be seated and only the punter can stand at the punters deck. I remember going first, being the first of the 5 people on my boat to punt. I held the long metal rod and wondered if it was actually long enough to reach the river bed, and it did of course reach. I wrapped the rod in my hand, let it slide down and hit the river bed, and I pushed away from the dock towards open water.

Steering is perhaps the hardest part. How do you steer a boat with a rod? Easier said than done. You have to push off the river bed and then as the boat is moving away you angle the rod on the surface of the water in the direction you want to steer. So if I want to turn left, I angle the rod’s tail towards the left and magically (or as some prefer, divinely) the boat turns left. The degree of turn depends on the degree of angling, the more angling gives you more .

I learned steering the hard way. After my first push off the river bed, I could not steer myself away from the edge of the river and into the path of extremely inconveniently placed and limbo-champion low bearing tree branches. My boat and I were headed straight for it. There was no doubt. My 5 Indian passengers who once saw me as a friend now screamed in terror and looked at me like a villain from Bollywood. Inevitably and to the pleasure of 25 or so classmates, I led my boat into the trees, and straight into the river wall. The boat made a loud THUD noise as contact was made with the river wall. According to the 25 classmates across the river, they also heard a scream and a splash.

Legend has it, it was me. The trees were so low and the branches were vastly numerous. I had nowhere to go and the next thing I knew my boat was headed for the wall and I was at the back edge of the boat watching my passengers fight off and duck branches. When the branches came to me, I could not duck or fight away the branches and I was, “walk the plank style”, executed. SPLASH! I was in the Harry Potter scary mysterious river. Thankfully I was smart enough to not have my phone with me and placed it in the handbag of a passenger but I fell in the water which was bad enough. I was soaked head to toe, and it was absolutely disgusting and terrifying because it felt like and looked like the type of water an alligator lives in. I quickly was able to swim to the river wall and climb up onto a grass field. I may have felt embarrassed for being the first to attempt punting and the first to fall in that day. More importantly though the laughter of my classmates and directors was consuming me in a happy way as they all enjoyed it so much they were crying. even though I might’ve had 10138491 different bacterial viruses all over my skin, it was the best feeling to share a moment as memorable as this with friends I may not ever see again but will remember for a lifetime.

Bonnie McElhinny
Xavar Bangash

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