June 15th is a big deal. Well, for me and a small number of other people, at least. That’s when the Lake Geneva Mailboat begins its summer deliveries, pier-to-pier. (As my regular readers know, I’m writing a novel about it.) My summer hasn’t begun until I’ve found the annual blitz of newscasts and newspaper reports showing spring try-outs. This was last year’s (2014), and under different circumstances, I would have been there to see it myself:
Alas, family obligations intervened – and stubbornly continued to intervene – until August, when the kids were trickling back to school and the Mailboat season was winding down. But I finally arrived in Lake Geneva, minus my original car (that’s another story), and saw the mail jumpers for myself. The Lake Geneva Cruise Line was amazingly supportive, and allowed me to job shadow the kids and the Mailboat captain for a few days.
I’d hoped that seeing the mail jumping in person would give me a better feel for what they were doing, and help me put the right words on the page as I wrote the story. But after two days on the Mailboat – while I enjoyed every minute – I felt no closer to my main character Bailey’s experience than I had been before.
So I gathered up my nerve and walked into the floating office barge to speak with Ellen, the office manager, who had been my primary contact in arranging my visit to the Mailboat.
“Would it be possible for me to shadow the Mailboat crew one more time … ?”
“Sure!” she said.
“… and maybe try a few jumps myself?”
She hesitated. “We don’t really let guests jump mail anymore. But you can ask Captain Neill.”
The next morning was cold and drizzly with a wind – a nasty day to jump mail. The boat would be harder to maneuver, and the piers would be slippery underfoot. But it was also my last day in Lake Geneva. I went ahead and asked the Mailboat captain if I could try a few deliveries.
He frowned heavily. “What kind of shoes do you have on?”
I lifted my tennie-clad foot. Neill looked disappointed he couldn’t veto my request based on footwear. He hesitated.
“Can I at least try a few dry runs while we’re tied up at the pier?” I quickly suggested.
He waved his hand and told me to eat my heart out.
I have over 50 video clips of the Mailboat in my files – newscasts and tourist uploads I’ve culled from YouTube and Vimeo over the past five years. Some of those videos include mail jumpers explaining how it’s done, or Neill giving advice to newbies. And … I confess, I practiced in my parents’ back yard. They have a tiered garden, bordered by railroad ties. The ties are about the same width as the catwalk on the side of the Mailboat, and the distance between them is about the same distance as between the boat and a pier.
I stood on the catwalk at the bow of the Mailboat and tried to imagine the force of a 60-ton vessel pushing me forward. That was the part that worried me – the possibility of being thrown off the edge of a pier due to momentum. With the boat currently moored to the pier, I couldn’t really practice that part.
I was more confident about getting back on. Run with the boat, leap with your right foot, land with your left, and grab the hand rail with both hands. The most common newbie mistake was to run straight at the boat, grab on, and be swung backward like a door on a hinge, slamming your body against the side of the boat.
Neill paused in his busy comings and goings to study my technique. He nodded. “One thing I always tell the kids is to jump high. That way, if the boat tips away just as you jump, you’ll still land on the rub rail, instead of hitting your shins.”
This was one piece of advice I’d never heard before. Mail Jumping 201? I practiced the new technique a few times, adding a flight-like arch to my jump. It felt graceful.
As the morning’s passengers began to line up on the pier, I abandoned my practice session and found Neill up by the helm. I sat in the mail jumpers’ window. “So …” I asked timidly, “think I can jump mail this morning?”
He nodded. “Yeah, we’ll let you jump a few deliveries.”
I refrained from pumping my fist.
On my first jump, I found out that putting the boat in motion changed everything. Jumping off was easy – though I underestimated the boat’s momentum and ended up running past the mailbox on the long pier. Getting back on – the part I thought I had down pat – was hard.
I turned around and saw windows flying by. I couldn’t focus on anything to grab on to. Any second, I’d run out of boat, and my window of opportunity would be gone. I wanted to yell, “Make it stop!” but that was unlikely.
I can’t do this, I thought. I pictured myself cemented to the pier like a deer in the headlights, and Neill having to circle back for me. But who was to say I’d do any better given a second chance?
Then something one of the mail girls told me earlier came to mind. “You have to be 100% every day.” Slack off, and you’d either fall on a pier or miss the boat.
One hundred percent, I told myself. You know how to do this. Leap with the right, land on the left, grab for the handrail.
I eyed the distance to the edge of the pier. Calibrated the number of steps I’d need to lead off with my right foot. Factored in the three or four feet of open water I’d have to jump across. Located the position of the catwalk and the handrail.
And reminded myself to run with the boat.
I took off.
My landing was as good as I could ask for. Funny thing is … the real mail girl, Fiona, made a video of my first jump, and you can’t even tell I hesitated. You’ll just have to believe me when I tell you, I was that close to being a pier ornament.
Not bad, but I’ll never forgive myself for forgetting to kiss the goose. (It’s a tradition.)
In all, I made about a half dozen deliveries. Neill gave me progressively harder jumps, and I managed to get back on the boat every time. The real surprise came when we got back to shore, and Neill suggested I stick around for another month or so and fill in for the kids who were going back to school.
I would have loved to.
Click here for an excerpt from my upcoming novel, Mailboat!
And seriously – you need to go see this for yourself. This year is the Mailboat’s 99th birthday! The boat sells out almost every morning, so reserve your tickets!