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How to Become a Tugboat Captain

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Tugboat captains are hired to pilot boats that bump, push and pull larger vessels through waterways and into and out of ports. They come in two varieties: the Mate of Towing, or second captain; and the Master of Towing, or first captain. The latter designation pays more but also requires more work experience. According to a 2013 story in The Hampton Roads Daily Press, tugboat captains are typically paid by the day and can earn between $72,000 and $144,000 a year if they work 180 days. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that employment opportunities for maritime captains is expected to grow by 14 percent between 2012 and 2022, which is faster than the average growth rate for all professions.


Most tugboat pilots complete maritime training through a formal academy. One of these, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, awards grads a Bachelor of Science degree and a U.S. Coast Guard license. Graduates also receive an officer’s commission in the U.S. Armed Forces. However, graduates are obligated to serve for at least five years in the U.S. maritime industry with eight years of service as an officer in a reserve unit of the armed forces or five years active duty in the armed forces. Other options include state academies, such as the California Maritime Academy and the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, which offer bachelor degree programs that prepare students for careers in the merchant marine industry.

Job Experience

You cannot land a tugboat captain job unless you have the required on-the-job experience. It typically takes about three years to gain this experience. Tugboat captains need at least 30 months of experience working as merchant marines, and at least 12 months of that time must be spent as a steersman, also referred to as a tugboat apprentice mate. To work as a steersman, you must possess at least 18 months of experience working as a deck hand on a tugboat. To work as a tugboat captain, you must be at least 21 years old and a U.S. citizen or immigrant who meets eligibility requirements established by the federal Transportation Security Administration. To qualify for a tugboat captain's license, you cannot have convictions for certain crimes, including murder, fraud, terrorism, espionage, drug distribution, smuggling and arson.

Skills Needed

To work as a tugboat captain, you must possess expert knowledge of maritime procedures and have keen awareness, strong leadership qualities and grace under pressure. Captains must have the training and knowledge to avoid potential dangers such as shallow waters and obstacles such as sunken debris and other vessels. Captains also must keep an eye on the weather and water conditions and make reports and recordings of the weather conditions. The job requires them to understand the characteristics of various weather patterns and to be able to identify these characteristics visually and via the use of onboard meteorological devices. They must know how to read weather data and use it to make weather-related predictions.


The U.S. Coast Guard issues certificates qualifying individuals to work as tugboat captains and in other merchant marine areas. To work as a tugboat captain, you must possess a Merchant Mariner Certification. To obtain it, you first must have a Transportation Worker’s Identification Credential from the U.S. Transportation Safety Administration. Next, you must complete the MMC paperwork and wait for it to be processed. The National Maritime Center will review your application by checking into your professional qualifications, criminal record, citizenship status and medical status.


Based in Central Florida, Ron White has worked as professional journalist since 2001. He specializes in sports and business. White started his career as a sportswriter and later worked as associate editor for Maintenance Sales News and as the assistant editor for "The Observer," a daily newspaper based in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. White has written more than 2,000 news and sports stories for newspapers and websites. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University.

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