The Mail Boat Captain of Detroit

An interview with Capt. Sam Buchanan, skipper of the nation's only floating zip code.

Capt. Sam Buchanan
Neither rain, nor sleet, nor choppy water...Dan Armitage

Capt. Sam Buchanan skippers the nation's only boat with its own zip code (48222), which delivers U.S. mail to ships while they are underway. His boat, JW Westcott II, is a 45-footer built in 1949. We followed in the wake of the 51-year-old captain as he piloted JW to make a mail delivery to a passing freighter, and caught up with him after his appointed round.

That was quite a feat to deliver the mail with both vessels moving at what we clocked to be about 10 mph. Was that a Home Depot bucket the freighter crew lowered to retrieve their mail?

Yep. We call it “mail by the pail” because that’s what most ships’ crews have on hand to heave over the side and fetch our deliveries.

Did you have to go through the U.S. Postal Service’s traditional mail-carrier training?

As a contractor for the Postal Service I went through a background check and was trained on the job on how to handle, sort, serve and cancel the mail. Each vessel has its own mail slot and when sailors shift boats we need to make sure their mail follows them.

Have you ever accidently dropped any mail into the river?

Nope. And I figure I’ve made 40,000 deliveries over the past 34 years. But every now and then when the guys are hauling the bucket up the side of the ship it will spill. We carry a net aboard to try to save what we can.

Does the motto “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” hold true for boat-to-boat deliveries?

We are contracted to deliver the U.S. mail to passing ships over a 252-day season, from April through the third week of December. That’s based on the length of the average boating season on the [Detroit] river before ice shuts things down. The weather and water conditions can get treacherous late in the season, and the vessels themselves may cancel a delivery if they feel it’s too dangerous for us to come out. But I’ve always prided myself in getting my deliveries made whenever possible. I know what it means to the crews who may have been at sea for weeks to get their mail.

Do you deliver anything to the ships besides the mail?

Oh yeah. We deliver groceries. And sometimes pets; sometimes wives.

Girlfriends?

We’re a G-rated business.