LAKE GENEVA, Wis. — In his 40 years behind the wheel of the Geneva Lake mailboat, Capt. Neill Frame has seen some dirty tricks played on the mailboat jumpers_the young employees who jump from boat to dock to deliver summer mail.
One resident ran a garden hose from the house, down to the pier and into the back of the mailbox. He watched from his home and waited for the jumper to approach the mailbox and sprayed him as soon as the box was opened.
Sometimes, jumpers face other challenges.
"Dogs get in the way on the pier, and the jumpers lose their timing," Frame said.
"Some of the homeowners are crafty: All it takes is a piece of Scotch tape or rubber band on the mailbox to throw the jumper's timing off," he said.
Frame was back on the water Wednesday as nine people, ranging in age from 17 to 21, tried out for a chance to be one of the mailboat jumpers. Some were seasoned veterans, hopping onto the boat as if stepping on a sidewalk. Some were rookies, slamming into the side and gripping the boat for dear life.
The Geneva Lake Mailboat Tour has been a tradition since 1916. Tourists sit back and watch as people jump on and off the boat to deliver mail and newspapers to mailboxes on docks.
In addition to focusing on the jumps and trying not to fall in the lake, the jumpers narrate the lake tour for passengers. The 75-foot boat is filled to its capacity of about 160 passengers most days.
Frame has been the mailboat captain since the early 1970s.
The retired boat caretaker returns to Lake Geneva Cruise Line every summer to participate in the Mailboat Tour. He said it's the jumpers and the tourists that keep him coming back.
"If I had been captain all these years just going around and around the same lake, I probably would have given up a long time ago," Frame said.
Jumpers aren't the only ones with challenges during the tour. Frame has to be sure during deliveries that the boat isn't going too fast, that it's properly aligned with the pier and, above all, that jumpers are safe. If a jumper falls into the lake, Frame has to make sure the propellers won't harm them.
Frame tries to coach the rookie jumpers.
During Wednesday's tryouts, he had the experienced jumpers show the rookies how the process works. He then had each rookie make a jump. He told them what they did wrong before having them make the jump at least one more time.
"That's the only way they can learn," Frame said. "I don't want to see anyone get hurt, so I want them to do it right. If they're afraid, they're never going to get it. They should be apprehensive, but they can't be afraid, because that's when they do something stupid and get hurt.
"Some of them will never get it. We've had kids who have tried and kept trying and haven't figured it out."
Frame, along with current and former employees of Lake Geneva Cruise Line, help pick the jumpers from tryouts. Frame says jumpers must be athletic, work very well with people and show interest in the area in order to present the tour narration. In addition to delivering mail, they are giving a history lesson, Frame said.
What started as a necessity in the early 1900s grew into tradition for the Mailboat Tours, and it has become an attraction that is filled to capacity by tourists almost every trip.