Can we deliver on the US postal service’s wettest job? We sent our best man to try.
“Welcome aboard,” says captain Ray Ames over the Tannoy of the US Mailboat Walworth, as the final passengers board his vessel. The horn atop the boat blasts through the hot morning air as we edge away from the dock on Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva, engines whirring and propellers churning the clear water. For some of us on board, the nerves begin to churn too: I, along with a handful of teenagers from the surrounding area, have joined this voyage for the annual try-outs for one of the least conventional but most athletic jobs the US Postal Service (usps) has to offer – that of the mailboat-jumper.
Since 1916, postal workers on board the Walworth have delivered mail to the dozens of houses nestled along the rim of the lake, whose mailboxes are stationed at the end of piers jutting into the water. The task is deceptively simple: take a recipient’s letters, packages or newspapers in hand, leap from the moving mailboat onto the pier, deliver the mail and then jump back onto the still-moving boat as it forges forward to the next pier and mailbox. Ellen Burling has been involved in running the mail-jump for 40 years and is in charge of today’s try-outs. “Remember,” she says, running through tips for a successful delivery. “In the battle between you and this big boat, you’re gonna lose.”
I turn pale. “Try not to fall in the water,” says Sid Pearl, sitting next to me. He is 18 years old and has worked on the mailboat for five years and, as a mail-jump veteran, is here to advise those taking the trial. “Sometimes it happens but it’s all fun and games,” he adds, cheerfully. None of the piers are the same, Sid adds. Some are long, some are short, some are built lengthways into the water parallel to the boat’s path, others are perpendicular to it. And, of course, there are the elements to contend with – icy piers, rain-soaked wood, windy days and choppy waters. That all means that every jump is close to unique. “On the shorter piers, you should shuffle your feet,” says Sid, “On the longer ones, make sure you’re running down the pier pretty quickly – because you definitely want to make sure that you make it back onto the boat in time.”
We make our approach to the first pier on our route. It is famous among the mail-jumpers because its carved, wooden mailbox is shaped like a goose. “It’s a tradition for the jumpers to kiss the goose after they make the delivery and before they jump back onto the boat,” Captain Ames announces over the sound of the water. Freshly armed with that important information, I clamber out of the window next to the captain, sit on the ledge and await my impending leap of faith.
The moment comes. I jump from the moving vessel – but overshoot. I stumble briefly and realise how close I am to the edge of the pier as the rippling lake water soars up towards me. I regain my balance, dash towards the wooden goose, plant a smacker on its beak and whirl around to see the Walworth sailing on. I have, in every sense, missed the boat.
“Jumping off, you were very hesitant,” says Angie Johns, one of the judges of today’s mail-jumping try-out, evaluating my attempt once the Walworth has returned to collect me. “You went way past the goose and then it was like you saw the boat whizzing past and thought: ‘I just can’t do it’. There’s room for improvement.” Then she adds, laughing. “And there’s always next year.”