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  • Nate Gilman

How to Become a Tugboat Captain

Updated: Jan 14



Tugboats, or tugs, are vessels that pull or push barges and assist ships in and out of harbors. If you have some maritime experience, you might consider leveraging that experience to find work in the towing industry. By following the towing industry career path you will be able to eventually attain a job as Captain aboard a tug. Being a tugboat Captain is a big deal. You won’t get there overnight. This article will describe the steps you’ll take in that career path that will lead to a Captain’s job and help you decide if this is the career for you.


There are many types of tugs in the towing sector of the maritime industry; for our purposes we’ll use Harbor Tugs as an example.


What does a Harbor tug Captain do?

Harbor tugs are used to assist ships and barges maneuvering in tight spaces and moving onto and off of docks. You could find yourself in icy waters in Alaska where the tug breaks up the ice alongside the pier so the ship can dock, or in a narrow waterway in a major port where ships need help turning and docking. Harbor tugs are also used to escort petroleum tankers as they’re approaching or leaving oil terminals.


The Harbor tug Captain has the ultimate responsibility for the tugboat and for the safety of the crew. When assisting ships, the tug operator works hand in hand with Harbor Pilots who are maneuvering the ships and directing the movements of the Harbor tugs. Ships take assist tugs because while they’re very good at going in a straight line crossing the oceans, they aren’t very maneuverable in port.


Adding assist tugs allows the Harbor Pilots to have directional power available at any desired point along the length of the ship, in addition to the ship’s engine. Harbor tug Captains are quite at home working right up against ships and in close proximity to other vessels to provide the power that the Pilot requires.

How You Can Become a Tugboat Captain

Becoming a tugboat Captain is a multi-step process that takes several years. This is a job that comes with great responsibility and high standards, and gaining experience at all levels on deck takes time and effort.


Overview:

  • Meeting the USCG prerequisites

  • Completing required classroom courses

  • Completing the TOAR (Towing Officer Assessment Record)

  • Applying for the license

  • Staying current with required paperwork and forms (This is where MM-SEAS is invaluable)

  • Going to work!

TWIC

One of the first requirements to work in the maritime industry is obtaining a Transportation Worker Identity Card (TWIC). This card is issued by the United States Transportation Security Administration and is required by the United States Coast Guard for every commercial mariner. You must have a TWIC to gain access to secure maritime facilities. This includes anything within a port: ships, tugs, and dockside facilities.


Classes, Training, and Assessments

From the entry level, there are USCG approved courses you are required to take to become an AB (Able Seaman), a USCG certified deckhand. After working the required sea days as an AB, your next step is attending a class to obtain an Apprentice Mate/Steersman endorsement. The certificate from this class fulfills the USCG testing requirements and allows you to begin the process of training to achieve a Mate of Towing endorsement. Much of your subsequent onboard training is directed toward completing a TOAR (Towing Officer Assessment Record), which is required to obtain a Mate of Towing endorsement. Many tugboat companies have USCG approved Designated Examiners who will administer the TOAR assessments during your training, or the TOAR can be completed in a simulator by a USCG approved Designated Examiner. On the west coast, attending the 1-day TOAR simulator class at Seattle TOAR Services is a popular option. On the east coast, we recommend attending the 1-day TOAR simulator class at Maritime TOAR Assessments or do an onboard TOAR with Diamond Marine Services.


Applying For the Master of Towing USCG License

There are also some official requirements and certifications required to submit a USCG license application.

  1. Applicants for the Master of Towing USCG license must be at least 21 years old, provide proof of U.S. citizenship, and pass a drug test and physical screening within the past twelve months.

  2. Applicants must have taken a USCG-approved basic firefighting course within the last 5 years. If you hold a valid STCW Basic Training you meet this requirement.

  3. All applicants are required by the USCG to submit first aid and CPR certificates from a USCG-approved institution or maritime professional training course once during their careers.

  4. All applicants must submit documented evidence of sea time. By tracking your sea time, you’ll know exactly when you’re qualified to make the next step up the licensing ladder.

Testing

After your Apprentice Mate/Steersman course noted above, there are no further tests required to obtain your USCG Towing endorsement. You will progress from Apprentice Mate/Steersman to Mate of Towing and ultimately to Master of Towing by completing your TOAR and fulfilling the sea service requirements.


Your Licensing Career Progression

There is a progression of licensing and endorsements you’ll follow on your quest to become a tugboat Captain. From the entry level, there are USCG approved courses you are required to take to become an AB. Next, when you have the qualifying sea time, you’ll obtain a USCG Apprentice Mate/Steersman endorsement, which can be obtained by attending a USCG approved course or by testing at a USCG exam center.


After working 360 days as an Apprentice Mate/Steersman, you can upgrade to a Mate of Towing endorsement by completing a TOAR. Ultimately, a USCG Master of Towing endorsement is obtained by completing at least 540 days of underway time as a Mate. At least 90 of those days must be on the route you are hoping to work. “Route” means what type of waters you work on. The USCG breaks them down into Oceans/Near Coastal, Great Lakes/Inland, and Western Rivers.


If you are wishing to obtain a towing endorsement and already hold a USCG Mate or Master’s license of over 500 tons you only need to, in no particular order:

  • Provide documentation of at least 30 days “training and observation” aboard towing vessels on a particular route and,

  • Hold a completed TOAR for the route you’re seeking


Working Your Way Up

Before becoming the Captain, you’ll need to work your way up the ladder and learn all onboard roles and duties.

  • The AB and Engineer are doing most of the hands-on deck work—helping with docking, cleaning, setting up towing equipment, loading supplies and groceries, and whatever else the vessel might need. Working as an AB is your starting point; your first opportunity to learn from the Captain, Mate, and Engineer.

  • The Engineer is responsible for and monitors and maintains the tug’s propulsion, electrical, hydraulic, and HVAC systems. Their job is essential in avoiding problems or interruptions in the operation. Engineers work closely with shoreside personnel coordinating repairs and shipyard work. Harbor tug ABs spend a lot of time in the engine room and learn about all the systems from the Engineer. This knowledge is invaluable when one becomes a Mate or Captain. Those jobs require extensive knowledge about every on-board system.

  • The Mate of a Harbor tug operates the tug when the Captain is off watch and supervises and participates in any required work on deck. It’s typically their job to complete required inspections, drills, logs, and requisition forms. They also plan routes to ensure safe passage wherever the tug operates. Harbor tug Mates often hold a Master of Towing endorsement and may have Captain’s experience already.

  • The Captain holds the senior-most position on a tugboat and is responsible for all vessel operations, 24-hours a day. Harbor tug crews typically work watches of 6 hours on and 6 hours off. The Captain and Engineer share a watch, and the Mate and AB share a watch.


Necessary On-The-Job Skills

Now that we’ve covered the USCG's requirements, there are some specific skills that you’ll develop on your journey to becoming a Captain.

  • Navigational skills: As the Captain of a tug, having good navigational skills is a must. These skills include using and understanding the tug's wheelhouse instruments, maintaining awareness of the tugboat’s position and implementing planned routes. Knowing and skillfully adhering to the COLREGS (collision regulations) regarding your interactions with other vessels is crucial to a safe voyage,

  • Tug handling skills: You will be trained to develop the high-level skills involved with operating your tug. Modern Harbor tugs have powerful, sophisticated propulsion systems that allow them to move quickly in any direction, with extraordinary precision.

  • Communication skills: The Captain communicates internally, overseeing their crew, and externally with other vessels and Pilots. The ability to communicate quickly and professionally is essential. The Captain needs these communication skills to maintain order and control—especially during critical and chaotic moments.

  • Technological skills: Modern Harbor tugs are outfitted with state-of-the-art technology. In the wheelhouse, radars, electronic charts, and radios are always in use. On deck, the towing winches are powerful and sophisticated machines and are controlled from the wheelhouse by the tug Captain.

Things to keep in mind

Becoming a tugboat captain has many great benefits. This can be a great lifelong career path and open doors to many other career opportunities.


Work Schedules and Travel

A Harbor tug Captain typically works two weeks on and two weeks off, living aboard, with watches of 6 hours on followed by 6 hours off, alternating with the Mate. Most find that working only half the year is of great benefit as it allows for travel and recreation time that shore-based jobs can’t offer. Many mariners live far from where they work and commute by air to join their tug.


Career opportunities

Earning your captain’s license allows you to pilot a tugboat, and can be used for other maritime careers:

  • Port Captain

  • Fleet and Vessel Management

  • Maritime construction work

  • Managing Inland, near-coastal, and offshore maritime operations

  • Supporting ferry or harbor operations

  • Shipyard management


Where You Can Find Work

The location you’re working in as a tugboat Captain largely determines your work and salary opportunities. Captains typically make $100,000 and more per year. Most port cities have opportunities for tugboat Captains. Busier ports can offer more job openings and better pay.

There has never been a better time to join the maritime industry. There are abundant job opportunities around the U.S. in many coastal ports, including: New York, Florida, Virginia, Louisiana, California, Alaska, and Washington. You can likely find an opportunity in most cities with a port and maritime activity. And once you have your license, the sky's the limit.




We hope this made your life a little easier and if you have other questions the MM-SEAS team is always here to help!


We do prefer to answer questions live with screen sharing to make both of our lives easier.


We hold free live virtual office hours Monday and Wednesday from 5:00 - 5:30 pm PT inside of mmseas.com under License Guidance and then Daily Office Hours.


Pro MM-SEAS members get access to our daily live office hours Monday thru Friday from 5:00 - 5:30 pm PT. You also get access to unlimited live 1 on 1 calls with one of our USCG Licensing Specialists. Pro MM-SEAS members can access these features inside of mmseas.com under License Guidance.



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