A punt is a type of flat bottomed boat which has been used for moving people and cargo along shallow rivers for hundreds of years. Modern punts are primarily used recreationally, although in some nations they continue to be used for the purpose of cargo. Most famously, punts are used for pleasure in the college towns of Oxford and Cambridge in England, where punting has been a popular pastime for students since the 1800s.
The design of a punt is quite unique and very distinctive in the world of boat building. Unlike many other watercraft, a punt lacks a keel, a strong central spine which is used as a base in most boats. Instead, the bottom of a punt is truly flat, and support is created with the use of a ladder-like series of slats. The sides of a punt are relatively shallow, and the ends are squared, allowing the boat to be faced in either direction for travel.
Traditionally, a punt is moved with a long pole. Punters typically stand in the front of the boat to push off and then walk towards the back while they continue to push, although in a more lightweight modern punt, the punter can stand in place to maneuver the boat. While poling might look relatively easy from a distance, it is actually quite challenging, and there are a number of variations in punting style which are used in various regions of the world.
These flat-bottomed boats have an extremely shallow draft, making them ideal for very shallow waterways, marshes, and reedy waters. They are also easy to maneuver, once one gets the hang of the poling technique needed to move a punt. Since a punt is double ended, it is easier to handle in confined spaces than some other styles of boat. Punts used for cargo typically have specially designed spaces for storage.
Incidentally, the word “punt” in reference to a boat comes from the Latin ponto, which means “flat bottomed boat.” This root word is also behind “pontoon.” “Punt” in the sense of kick, as in sports, comes from the Midlands slang term bunt, which means “to strike.” In regions where “punt” is used to mean “giving up,” the word is related to the sports term. If you're interested in poling a punt yourself, these boats are often available for rental along the River Thames in England, and many rental facilities also offer brief instruction in poling.