Last Laugh: Top of the Heap

1 January 2021 By Gavin Rothenburger
illustrated man on ladder above others
Illustration by John Devolle

Gavin Rothenburger has been the author of Dockwalk’s humor column Last Laugh since 2008. For questions, concerns, or for general badmouthing, you can write to me at

I’m not exactly at the top of the totem pole. In fact, most days it feels like the totem pole fell into a swamp, pinning me down while cold-hearted ducks pee in the water nearby. Making it to the top of the ladder is difficult in any career and the same holds true for yachting. The only difference is that in most other professions you don’t share a bedroom with Drinky McHeartburn.

In yachting, you have to eat lunch every day with the same person who constantly kicks the ladder out from under you while pointing out how much of the spatter you missed when cleaning their head. Taking the next step is tough.

There are things we can do to make the climb easier. For starters, try not to be incompetent. For those of us who count incompetence as the number one quality that people remember us for, the climb up the ladder will be like shimmying up a heated grease pole. But the simple fact of being an idiot shouldn’t deter you from lofty ambitions. I myself have worked for numerous well-paid captains who could very well be indicted on dozens of counts of soft-headedness and to whom applying the word “incompetent” would not only be considered an understatement but actually a compliment.

So, we can see that while taking that little bit of extra acid in high school that leaves you confused by such complex things as, say, cereal, makes the climb a little more difficult, being a semi-recovered burnout is in no way a roadblock to the top. But if you’re really smart, life’s a whole lot easier. That said, you’re probably not really smart because otherwise you’d have figured out there are better ways to make money than being employed by a captain whose sole intellectual pursuit is making snake people out of Play-Doh. So, there’s that. But intelligence is relative to the people around you and if you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by the sort of people who are baffled by something as perplexing as a wash mitt, then you’ll stand above the rest.

Intelligence can also be helpful in that not only does it make the climb up the ladder faster, smart people are able to come up with a whole lot of ways of being incredibly lazy on the way. Nothing gets you out of work quicker than a clever scheme and, while I hate giving engineers credit for anything other than their ghastly feet, which typically look like one of Godzilla’s if Godzilla had happened to stub his toe on a cruise ship and then done nothing about the ensuing infection, engineers are the only people I know who are regularly thanked and congratulated for taking a refreshing nap in an air-conditioned control room.

Owners are inexplicably amazed and unnaturally grateful when they get through an entire trip without the inconvenience of being electrocuted and are further stunned by the engineer’s preternatural ability to quickly and entirely repair the hot water system by switching on the heater he’d forgotten he turned off earlier. Vaulting up that ladder can be an absolute pleasure if you can do it while sleeping away the afternoon after a nice bottle of wine.

A less common approach to self-promotion is to strategically sleep with people in a series of surgically planned and executed rumpy-bumpy operations. While this route may require a hesitant dalliance with somebody whose countenance is more akin to a ruptured cold sore than a Hollywood star, if you’re able to keep your lunch down and act as though you find them at least as attractive as a used Kleenex, then promotions can come fast and furious. Sure, your friends might start calling you certain names and you might get the cold shoulder from some of your colleagues. But while it will probably feel wrong and degrading — and you’ll probably wind up catching something nobody wants to catch and will now have a much greater chance of dying bitter and lonely — sleeping your way to the top is always a Grade-A option.

Which brings us to one of the most effective and least pleasurable ways of getting ahead. Hard work. Hard work is just awful and my aversion to it may be why I have yet to retire from a highly successful career (that and every superior I’ve propositioned told me they prefer not to mingle with enduringly tipsy goats).

What really gets you to the top, or so I’m told, is hard work, dedication, loyalty, and a whole gamut of wonderful qualities that my name is in no way associated with. So be smart, work hard, amaze people with your nap-taking abilities, rumpy-bumpy if you have to, and one day you may find yourself sitting at the top of the ladder even while still trying to figure out how to use that pesky wash mitt.

This column originally ran in the January 2021 issue of Dockwalk.


More from Dockwalk