Holly Johnson clung to the side of the U.S. Mailboat as it plied the waters of Geneva Lake early Tuesday morning.
She stood on a slight ledge on the side of the 75-foot-long boat. As the vessel slid close to a pier, Johnson waited for the right moment to leap.
“It doesn’t seem like we’re going very fast while we’re on the boat,” Johnson said. “When you’re out there on the ledge, you feel like you’re going a million miles per hour. There’s just so many thoughts going through your head.”
Johnson, 18, of Burlington was the morning’s second jumper. Along with eight others, she was vying to become a summer mailboat jumper for Lake Geneva Cruise Line.
To qualify, each applicant had to leap from the boat, stuff mail into mailboxes fixed onto piers and jump back on the boat in a matter of seconds. The boat never stops moving.
It’s a 102-year-old tradition on Geneva Lake. Each summer, the jumpers deliver mail to about 60 piers through a contract with the U.S. Postal Service. On Sunday mornings, they deliver newspapers.
The boat leaves the pier at 7 a.m. with two jumpers on board. Each jumper works a few days a week, and two or three jumpers stay on as alternates.
Katie Theisz, 20, of Lake Geneva has been a jumper for two years. She said it takes a couple of weeks to get comfortable with the jump.
“Even if we jump four days a week, the people are brand new, and they’ve never seen this before,” Theisz said. “They can’t believe we’re jumping off a boat. It’s super fresh. I love my job.”
Aside from leaping onto piers, the jumpers serve as tour guides. They provide detailed information to guests about the houses that ring Geneva Lake, their famous guests and lake history.
Ellen Burling, a manager at Lake Geneva Cruise Line, said the U.S. Mailboat holds about 150 tourists. Most of the tours, which will kick off Friday morning, are already sold out, she said.
Neill Frame is the boat’s captain, and he’s been behind the wheel for 50 years. He said mail delivery on the lake has a rich history, dating back to the late 1800s when residents had milk and groceries brought to their piers by boats.
By 1916, residents starting having their mail delivered to mailboxes on their piers. Since then, mail has been delivered uninterrupted every summer, Frame said.
“It’s a big tradition. We meet so many great people,” he said. “You get a lot of interaction with the passengers.”
Many of the jumpers Tuesday were repeat applicants. One of them, Connor Handel, 18, of Elkhorn cartwheeled back onto the boat after delivering mail to one pier.
When asked how he felt about his chances, he said, “I’m feeling pretty confident. This will be my fourth summer.”
Later in the day, after each applicant had jumped onto three piers, the cruise line announced the winners. Theisz; Handel; Molly McEneany, 17. of Lake Geneva; and Ronan McCarter, 18, of Naperville, Illinois, were named regular jumpers for the summer.
Sean Brady, 18, of Williams Bay; Lauren Kirkwood, 18, of Highland Park, Illinois; and Paige Aspinall, 17, of Lake Geneva are the alternates.
Johnson’s first jump was telling. She decided she could spend her summer better elsewhere.
“I ended up belly-flopping, but that’s OK,” she said. “I got up and didn’t even bother trying to grab the boat. I didn’t need to fall in, too.”