A PUNTING LIFE
WORDS Kim Newth PHOTOS Sarah Rowlands
Dressed as an Edwardian gentleman, complete with straw boater, 39-year-old Ben Lander is preparing for another busy day of punting on the Avon.
Our interview takes place at the Antigua Boat Sheds. Dating back to 1882, this is one of the few old places in the central city that feels untouched by all the upheavals of recent years. For Ben, the heritage sheds hold many memories. As a young university graduate, he recalls stumbling into the sheds one day after a party. He’d wanted to hire a row boat but instead got “press ganged” into having a go at punting. He wound up working as a full-time punter for a year before taking up a position as an art teacher.
Some years later, he returned to the sheds as a boat builder after having noticed that its last Edwardian rowing skiff was rotting away.
“I talked to [canoe hire and Boatshed Café owner] Mike Jones and asked if he’d thought about building any new ones and he replied, ‘would you like to do it?’ … I spent two years building replica Edwardian rowing skiffs and wooden canoes.”
While Ben had previously helped his father – Christchurch artist Mark Lander – to repair an old sailing dinghy, he had never built a boat from scratch before taking on the project. “We made a survey of the old boats and fortunately I was also able to borrow several books on boat building from the Christchurch Library.”
The four boats he built a decade ago are still stored at the sheds and remain in good working order.
Ben only returned to punting a few months ago, after having spent the intervening years working in a Christchurch picture framing and art restoration workshop.
“I’d kept in touch and so when I was offered a job here I thought I’d love to do that again. You become a happy person when you’re on the river. You’re being paid to be an entertainer and a guide and it just seems to engage that positive part of your mind.”
As he has found, it’s also a job that’s good for fitness. Each flat-bottomed punt weighs 500kg and takes up to 10 passengers; using a pole to push all that mass upriver is a real workout. It is a job that requires considerable poise to keep the boat balanced and stable while simultaneously maintaining a running commentary sprinkled with jokes and snippets of interesting information.
When not on the water, Ben enjoys keeping the punts well maintained and he is also a dab hand at making poles. These are almost five metres long. Each is finished with a spoked stainless steel shoe, designed to stop the pole from sinking into the mud.
Having plied the river as a young man, Ben has had no difficulty taking to the punts again though observes that it’s easy to go wrong. In spite of their design, poles can still get stuck and just about every punter ends up in the water at some point. At the height of summer, gently fending off wayward canoes on the river can be a mission in itself.
Usually, though, the journey through the Botanic Gardens and Hagley Park, passing daffodil woodlands, is a daily delight. “It feels timeless and elemental. You’re living in the moment – it’s so good.”