‘The coolest summer job': These teens jump off a moving boat to deliver mail in Wisconsin

Photo: Lake Geneva Cruise Line

Marissa Torres-Raby didn't want to spend her summer making copies in an office or slinging ice cream like her classmates — jumping from moving boats and sprinting off piers sounded a lot more exciting.

The 19-year-old is a mail boat jumper in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the first and only town in the U.S. where jumpers, like Torres-Raby, deliver mail from a passenger-carrying mail boat. The tradition began in 1916 and has continued, uninterrupted, from June through September, for the last 107 years.

This is Torres-Raby's third summer working on the Walworth II, Lake Geneva's double-decker mail boat. She started working for Lake Geneva Cruise Line, which operates the Walworth II, when she was 15, in a ticket office on the pier. 

To be a mail boat jumper, you need to be athletic, agile and willing to perform in front of hundreds of tourists. Lake Geneva Cruise Line offers tours of the mail boat at 10 a.m. every day, which lets people follow the jumpers along their route. 

Six jumpers, many of whom come from towns surrounding Lake Geneva, are selected at the start of each season after a competitive tryout in June. Some are excited to be part of a long-standing tradition, but most are teens hoping to land, as Torres-Raby calls it, "the coolest summer job out there."

Delivering flat-screen TVs to docks

The jumpers' day starts at the post office at 7 a.m. to pick up the mail, then it's off to the Walworth II to sort the mail, prepare for launch and greet passengers.

Each jumper makes 45 to 60 jumps a day, typically working Monday through Saturday. The Walworth II is always on the move, only slowing down to allow the jumpers to get on and off the boat — which means that sometimes, they might have to take an unexpected swim during their shift.

"It doesn't happen often, but it's a rite of passage," Sid Pearl, a mail boat jumper of five years, says. "If the dock is slippery or you underestimate the distance from the edge of the pier to the stern, there's a good chance you're going in that water."  

Some deliveries are harder than others. Ray Ames, who's been the captain of the Walworth II for the past 20 years, says the largest item a jumper has delivered during his tenure was a 42-inch flat-screen TV, a few summers back. Last year, one of the jumpers had to sprint across the pier with a 30-pound umbrella base. 

"We'll carry anything that the post office gives us and figure out how to get it there," the 64-year-old adds. 

Jumpers typically finish their shift by 1 p.m., but most have other jobs at the cruise line as tour guides or bartenders that will keep them working through the afternoon or evening. The cruise line declined to share the hourly wage for jumpers.

'There's really nothing better'

Pearl has many fond memories from past summers working on the mailboat, but he especially loves a sold-out tour on a sunny morning and entertaining out-of-town visitors. The 19-year-old recalls one tour with documentary filmmakers from Germany, who planned a trip to Lake Geneva after reading about the Walworth II online. 

"There's really nothing better," he adds. "It's such a fun, special job that I can tell stories about for the rest of my life."

Ethan Connelly, who's been a mail boat jumper for three summers now, says that one of the most rewarding aspects of the job is befriending the residents. 

"There's one neighbor, Mrs. Phillips, who will stand out on the pier almost every morning we visit her with cookies for the jumper," the 19-year-old says. "Anytime we turn into the bay where her house is, I know we're in for some homemade chocolate chip cookies and a hug, which makes the job even more fun."

All three teens — Torres-Raby, Pearl and Connelly — say this is their last summer working on the boat. Next year, when they're all rising juniors in college, they'll consider summer classes, study abroad programs, internships and other work opportunities instead.

Torres-Raby believes being a mail boat jumper has prepared her well for the corporate world. 

"It's really helped me develop my confidence and communication skills, just having the ability to lead a tour of 100-plus strangers and do a challenging job well, even in bad weather, I've learned a lot," she says.

Ames, however, isn't ready to retire from the water. "I have a few more seasons in me," he says, adding that he hopes to remain captain until his grandkids are old enough to be jumpers.

"The mail boat signals summer here, people are out in the piers every day waving to us, they just love it," he adds. "Bringing that joy means a lot to me, that's what motivates me to show up to work every day."

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