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Teens compete to deliver mail from boat to lakefront homes in Wisconsin

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can stop postal carriers from delivering the mail - so the unofficial motto goes. Some teenage mail carriers in southern Wisconsin face yet another natural element as they compete to deliver mail to lakefront homes. Sarah Lehr of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.

SARAH LEHR, BYLINE: One of the typical uniforms for U.S. post office mail carriers includes a blue collared shirt and an over-the-shoulder satchel. But for some mail routes in Lake Geneva, one of Wisconsin's trendy resort cities, a life jacket is an absolute necessity. More than a dozen teens lined up on the deck of a cruise ship on a recent rainy morning trying out for spots as mailboat jumpers on the Lake Geneva cruise line.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIP HORN BLOWING)

LEHR: During its mail runs, the ship never stops. Jumpers have to leap from deck to pier and back again as they drop off mail and collect outgoing letters. Captain Ray Ames briefs the hopefuls.

RAY AMES: Remember, you're going from a moving boat onto a stationary pier. You lead with your right going off. Don't try to plant your feet and stop. Run it out.

LEHR: Eighteen-year-old Erin Hensler grew up near Lake Geneva, where mailboat jumpers are idolized. She hopes to secure a spot for her second summer of jumping.

ERIN HENSLER: There's a lot of adrenaline. And, you know, some people chase the runner's high. We chase the jumper's high.

LEHR: Mail's been delivered by boat in the southeast Wisconsin vacation town since the late 1800s, 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 mailboat jumpers every summer. It's part of a longstanding agreement between the cruise line and the local post office.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Ryan, make sure to land...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Grab with both hands.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Left foot. Always...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good job.

LEHR: The job is coveted, and it requires firm footing. Run too fast before you jump back on 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.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Is she in? She went in. She's in the lake.

LEHR: The boat kept chugging along at about 10 miles per hour.

EMMA BOND: And I tried to pull myself back, but the momentum of the boat - or trying to get to the boat just pulled me in. My mom packed extra clothes just in case, and I think she jinxed me.

LEHR: Trying to stay dry is just part of the job. The boat jumpers also give tours to the passengers who ride along during each mail run.

MARISSA TORRES-RABY: All the next six properties are especially interesting as they are currently or were at one point, all part of the Wrigley estate.

LEHR: That's 19-year-old Marissa Torres-Raby, one of the more experienced jumpers, talking about the history of the mansions that were built along the lake by Chicago business titans. During tryouts, the boat jumpers are graded on their narration, and former mail jumper Katie Theisz is one of the judges. She's looking for jumpers with stage presence.

KATIE THEISZ: So we're looking at people skills and athleticism and how comfortable they are with all that put together.

LEHR: 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. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Lehr in Lake Geneva, Wis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Lehr
Sarah Lehr is a politics and civics reporter for WKAR News.

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