LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Imagine being a sailor on the Great Lakes, living on a freighter for weeks on end on a schedule so tight the ship barely slows down. How do you get things like, say, mail? Well, there's a boat for that. Quinn Klinefelter of member station WDET in Detroit took a ride on the nation's only floating post office.
QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: Mariners email and order packages online as much as anyone, but then they have to keep an eye out for this squat, unassuming building along the Detroit River, one of the few shipping lanes handling freighters laden with coal or iron ore.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) on 10.
NEIL SCHULTHEISS: Yes, good morning, sir. We see you coming up on there. We don't have anything for you, but we'd be happy to come out if you have anything coming off.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'll check with the captain and come back to you in a minute.
SCHULTHEISS: OK, roger that. Standing by 10.
KLINEFELTER: It's the operations center of the J.W. Westcott Co., delivering mail and supplies by boat since 1874. Inside, Relief Captain Neil Schultheiss glances at cubbyholes stacked with mail for each domestic freighter on the Great Lakes and says he still marvels at what's about to happen.
SCHULTHEISS: There's nowhere else in the world where you'll be along this size ship at these speeds. They do slow down, but they only slow down to a certain point.
KLINEFELTER: They used to use a rowboat. Now they use a tug boat, the only one with its own zip code. Onboard, Captain Sam Buchanan steers toward a massive oncoming freighter, the Cason J. Callaway. Buchanan says he takes almost anything out to the freighters - packages, replacement sailors, even once a goat. He also takes great pains to stay firmly attached to the spokes of his steering wheel.
SAM BUCHANAN: I don't swim all that well, and so I stay out of the water.
KLINEFELTER: You're the captain of the boat.
BUCHANAN: I have every - I have every incentive to keep you afloat. You have to think of it that way.
KLINEFELTER: Big tires lining the tug brush gently against the freighter, which towers about five stories above the water. The freighter's crew begins the not-so-high-tech job of transferring letters by lowering a bucket down to Buchanan's boat - mail by the pail, they call it.
BUCHANAN: They have this bucket ready, he drops the bucket, and it looks like mail came off. Then I'll blow my whistle at him and he'll blow back. It's a salute.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHIP HORN)
KLINEFELTER: Buchanan says he often gets more than just a goodbye.
BUCHANAN: Sometimes they'll put cookies off for us. One boat always puts off breakfast sandwiches if it's breakfast time. So we're kind of like their lifeline to the rest of the world, you know?
KLINEFELTER: He heads back to shore, ready for another of the two or three dozen deliveries the company makes every day between April and December.
BUCHANAN: This is what I do all day. I run out, have controlled collisions with freighters, then go back to the station and have more coffee.
When we go off of here, that outfall there stinks pretty bad.
KLINEFELTER: Buchanan steps on the dock, patting the rust-free hull of the mail boat. It was built in 1949, but Buchanan says nothing seems to stop it, not even when it sank to the bottom of the river in 2001.
BUCHANAN: You know, we thought for a few minutes that maybe it's not fixable, but then we started thinking about our crew members that were aboard it. And we all got together and everybody said you know what? If nothing but for the memory of those folks, we're going to put it back together. And we did.
KLINEFELTER: And Buchanan predicts despite cutbacks in shipping traffic and first-class mail deliveries, the nation's only floating post office will also survive.
BUCHANAN: Long as there's a ship sailing on the Great Lakes out here, there'll be a need for us.
KLINEFELTER: With that, Buchanan heads back to the small station house to grab another cup of coffee and await another controlled collision. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.
[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: This report refers to the J.W. Westcott as the nation's only floating post office. It is, according to the U.S. Postal Service, the only U.S. boat with its own ZIP code and the only such vessel that is a full-time post office. In Point Baker, Alaska, however, there is a post office that floats on pontoons alongside a dock. It has limited hours, according to USPS.]
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