Monday, March 6, 2017


When I'm back in the Lower 48 USA version of land life, one of the things that I immediately notice is how desperately important status is.

People drive around in Mercedes cars or BMWs and the whole point seems to be having that very expensive hood ornament that you can push into other people's faces.

How silly! Who would dedicate their lives to earning enough money to guarantee an existence of brand fulfillment?

But, then, on further reflection, I begin to see the point. Status is incredibly valuable. Put in the plainest terms, if you have status, you live longer. (Read about the Whitehall Study. It's fascinating.)

So if status grants you a longer life (and all sorts of other benefits in terms of happiness and access to high-quality mates and so on and so on) then of course people will go to great lengths to pursue it. And a BMW badge on the hood of your car is what evolutionary biologists would call an honest signal of quality. You can't just gin up a luxury car in your garage. You have to buy one, and they cost a lot, and so having one is a difficult-to-fake signal of your status in the society.

Not that dedicating your life to earning enough money to drive a fancy car isn't an ugly trap. But there is an unarguable logic to the trap.

And all this has anything to do with

Motoring towards the Caribbean side of the Canal. A vast field of anchored shipping, all waiting to get through
There was this funny dynamic that we noticed in the Caribbean.

Suddenly, we were cool.

Yachties when meeting each other almost never ask the normal first question of land life - What do you (or did you) do for a living?

That would be grotesquely poor manners in the life afloat. Plus the answer would usually be too dull for words, anyway.

But yacthies meeting each other do typically ask about each other's program. Where have you been? Where are you bound?

A lot of sailors in the Caribbean are just starting out. So when we tell people about where we've been, we find ourselves suddenly rocketing to the head of the sailing hierarchy.

Both in the Alaska work boat world, and among the highly-accomplished sailors whom it has been our pleasure to get to know since we left Alaska, we've noticed that there is a strong correlation between ability and humility. The most accomplished people don't have to spend time letting you know how good they are.

I hope that we follow that example and don't spend much time trumpeting our accomplishments. But for all that, Alisa and I both noticed felt to be held in esteem by new acquaintances. We had a version of social status that we were unused to. And it was a very pleasant elixir. I wonder if we weren't just noticing the feeling of our blood pressure going down.

Whether or no, I think that's all over now that we're on the Pacific side. Most of the boats here are about to jump off on very large trips indeed, on some of the greatest adventures that it is possible to have on your own boat. And we are, once again, just another boat in the pack.

Which is fine with us, of course. We'll fall back on that Hiscockian thing of leading a life that has you thinking well of yourself, rather than measuring yourself through other people's opinions.

An early touchstone of commonality between our line handler Denise and the Galactics - Denise likes Tin Tin, too!


  1. Great story and pics in the March CW, I really enjoyed it. All the best to the Galactics!

  2. Hi Mike and Alisa, Status in western society is something I've (Paul) spent a great deal of time thinking about and I'm pretty sure that I (we) no longer have any status. I think you are right about the level of respect other sailors have for your accomplishments but does that then reflect to status ? It should but I think in the western world it's more associated with material wealth than with someone whom we respect. Should movies stars and golf and tennis players have the high status they in enjoy ? Not in my books. If the people in our society with high status were the ones that were creating a better world and not just becoming rich though entertaining us then it would make more sense to me. Anyway, I could rave on all day. We are on the west coast of Mexico heading south, are you heading north ? Drop us an email and perhaps we can catch up. Paul and Frances (S.V. Monkey Fist)

    1. Hey Guys! So great to hear from you. I think you're right in pointing out that there are different sorts of status - respect from your peer group vs. wealth and accolades in the larger world. And I agree that by going sailing we have largely given up on much of the "larger-world" status that we might have attained through a decade of work.

      I was motivated to write that post just by noticing how other sailors reacted to us in the Caribbean. It's a very informal, very non-hierarchical world that we inhabit, but...we did notice the way that even informal, non-hierarchical groups do keep score of who's who in one way or another. It's all very subtle, of course, and not much worth writing about, I suppose, but I noticed, as silly as it sounds, how good it felt to pick up on the subtle social cues from other people about where we fit into the group, and that got me thinking about the Whitehall study, and how powerful it is to be positively noticed in any group...and that got me to pushing the "post" button instead of doing some useful boat job.

      Anyway! We'll drop you a line. We're heading off to Hawai'i at the end of the month, so I'm afraid we'll be ships passing in the night...

  3. Hi Mike
    I've long been an advocate of the Potlatch system for acquiring status as reportedly practiced by the tribes of the north pacific coast. He who receives the most respect and highest status in the tribe is the one who throws the biggest party while giving away all his acquired possessions.

    Haven't made much progress in codifying the principle into a law that would require the richest 1000 in the US to give away half of their assets on January 1 of each year. (or become slaves with a canoe paddle in hand)

    1. G'day Horizonstar,

      Funny, that - I've often thought of Polynesian gift giving in much the same terms. Giving definitely conveys status in Polynesia.

      re. the Fukushima radiation question - the 2nd issue of Fisheries Oceanography this year is a Fukushima special issue. Most/all of it is open access, so you can read to your heart's content.