Most U.S. Postal Service mail carriers wear uniforms with collared shirts and over-the-shoulder satchels.
But if you want a mail route in Lake Geneva, you may have to don a lifejacket.
More than a dozen teens did just that as they lined the deck of a cruise ship known as the Walworth on a rainy June morning.
They’re competing for an unusual summer job — delivering mail by boat in one of Wisconsin’s oldest resort cities.
During its mail runs, the Walworth never stops. So jumpers have to leap from deck to pier and back again as they drop off mail and collect outgoing letters.
Ray Ames is a middle school band director who moonlights as the mailboat’s captain each summer.
He’s seen his fair share of mail jumper wipeouts, and he gives the hopefuls a few tips during this season’s tryouts.
“Remember you’re going from a moving boat onto a stationary pier,” he warns. “You lead with your right going off, don’t try to plant your feet and stop. Run it out.”
Mail has been delivered by boat in the southern Wisconsin tourist town since the 1870s, when many newly-built estates were hard to reach by road.
Now carriers can drive mail trucks to those houses, but some lakefront homeowners still like to keep the tradition alive.
Close to 80 of them choose to have their letters and newspapers dropped off by mail boat jumpers every summer.
It’s part of a longstanding agreement between the Gage Marine cruise line and the local Post Office. Mail jumpers are employees of the cruise company rather than the U.S. Postal Service, and, each summer, the jumpers deliver mail six days a week along with newspapers on Sundays.
Erin Hensler grew up near Lake Geneva, where mail boat jumpers are idolized. The 18-year-old hopes to secure a spot for her second summer of jumping.
“There’s a lot of adrenaline,” she said. “Some people chase the runners’ high. We chase the jumpers’ high.”
The only people allowed to try out for jumper spots are those who’ve worked for the cruise line for at least one summer prior. This year, managers chose eight people to be mail boat jumpers, along with three alternates.
The job is coveted, and it requires firm footing.
Run too fast before you jump back on to the boat and you risk a collision. That’s how a few past jumpers have cracked the ship’s glass windows.
Hesitate and you’ll plunge straight into Geneva Lake, like 16-year-old Emma Bond during tryouts.
The boat kept chugging along at about 10 miles per hour after she slipped on the wet dock.
“I tried to pull myself back but the momentum of the boat, or trying to get to the boat, just pulled me in,” Bond said, after she hoisted herself back aboard and wrapped herself in a towel. “My mom packed extra clothes just in case. I think she jinxed me.”
Staying dry is just part of the job.
The jumpers also have to give tours to as many as 150 passengers who ride along for each mail run. During tryouts, they’re graded on their narration.
Former mail jumper Katie Theisz is looking for jumpers with stage presence. She returned to the lake to judge this season’s contenders.
“So we’re looking at people skills and athleticism and how comfortable they are with all that put together,” Theisz said. “This is a tourist town. You know, we kind of like to put on a show.”
Not every part of the job is glamorous. Jumpers start sorting mail by 7 a.m. And they have to clean the ship’s bathrooms.
But mailboat jumpers say there’s no other way they’d rather spend their summers.