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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are also some official requirements and certifications required to submit a USCG license application.
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.
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 can do so by doing the following:
Before becoming the Captain, you’ll need to work your way up the ladder and learn all onboard roles and duties.
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.
Becoming a tugboat captain has many great benefits. This can be a great lifelong career path and will open doors to many other career opportunities.
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.
Earning your captain’s license allows you to pilot a tugboat, and can be used for other maritime careers:
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!
No matter what, when you are ready to submit your application, you can choose to have the MM-SEAS staff create a perfect application, handle the USCG application fees and work with the USCG on your behalf to resolve any issues for a flat fee of $299 or you can choose to submit on your own.
Pro MM-SEAS members get access to unlimited live 1 on 1 calls with one of our USCG Licensing Specialists. We've found that answering questions live with screen sharing in a video call makes both of our lives easier. Pro MM-SEAS members can access these features inside of MM-SEAS under License Guidance.
Nate has over 15 years of professional maritime experience and has hawsepiped his way to a 3rd Mate Unlimited Endorsement with full STCW compliance. He is proud veteran of the NOAA Commissioned Corps.