Becoming a master of towing vessels — also known as a tugboat captain or tugboat pilot — may sound like an unusual career choice. But for many, a tugboat captain’s license unlocks a compelling vocation that’s hands-on, dynamic and financially secure.

Why Get a Captain’s License?

There are several professional and personal benefits you can enjoy when you earn a tugboat captain’s license

1. Career Diversity and Mobility

Candidates seeking a tugboat captain’s license can use their certificate for any of the following maritime career paths:

  • Paid full-time or part-time tugboat captain or mate
  • Inland, near-coastal and offshore maritime operations
  • Ferry or harbor boat operations
  • Maritime rescue and relief work
  • Commercial container ship docking and undocking
  • Charter boating for fishing, parasailing or more
  • Recreational and business yachting
  • And dozens more sub-fields and niches

2. Financial Stability

The average salary for a master of towing or tugboat captain is $87,420, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For comparison, the average household income, according to the latest federal data, is just over $63,000.

Location and experience are the largest factors that determine your salary as a tugboat captain. For example, captains in high-demand markets like Louisiana and Washington can outpace industry averages, earning upwards of $99,000-$123,000 annually

3. Autonomy

A tugboat captain is a vessel’s guiding leadership. Your authority extends over nearly every operation occurring on the ship — from docking and undocking to maritime navigation, fleet repairs, equipment maintenance, crew scheduling and more. Many are drawn to a career with the opportunities and autonomy to call the shots without the constraints of office bureaucracies, hierarchies and nine-to-fives. A tugboat captain position offers just that.

4. Travel

Tugboat captains travel often. In fact, travel is the norm when working in this niche of the commercial maritime industry. Offshore masters of towing experience international travel on open waters, while inland and near-offshore tugboat captains routinely visit new cities and ports. In either case, the world is your oyster.

How to Become a Tugboat Captain

To become a tugboat captain, you must do the following to receive your license from the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG):

  • Check off several important prerequisites
  • Complete a dedicated captain’s training course
  • Pass the assessment
  • Provide additional paperwork and forms

1. Prerequisites

Candidates for a master of towing license must first provide proof of the following:

  • Prior maritime experience: Prospective captains must provide proof of 540 days of work as a mate of towing. At least 90 of these days must be on a single route. Typically, candidates work their way up from a deckhand to a general merchant marine, then complete tenure as an apprentice mate, or steersman.
  • Safety certificates: Candidates must provide up-to-date documents showing a valid Merchant Marine License Documentation (MMLD). That MMLD must also have a “Y” designation, meaning the candidate has recently passed a Safety and Security Evaluation Branch (SSEB) assessment to receive or renew their MMLD.

In addition, candidates must be at least 21 years old, pass a drug test and physical screening within the past six months and provide proof of U.S. citizenship.

2. Emergency Medical Certificates

Tugboat captains must have first aid and CPR certificates from a USCG-approved institution or maritime professional training course. Proof of certificates is submitted during the final application package sent to the USCG.

licensed captain operating tugboat voyage

3. Additional Endorsements

Captaining certain tugboat voyages requires additional training, achieved through a Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) certificate.

The following tugboat trips require captains to hold a valid STCW:

  • International tours across international waters
  • Open ocean voyages exceeding near-coastal perimeters
  • Inland, near-coastal and domestic trips with a vessel of at least 200 Gross Register Tonnage (GRT)

4. Tugboat Captain License Training Course

Finally, candidates must complete a USCG-approved tugboat captain’s licensing training course.

Maritime training courses take place at formal institutions. Those seeking to earn their tugboat captain’s license have two main options in these instructional academies: The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy or a U.S. Coast Guard-approved regional or state institution, such as the MITAGS Tugboat License Training Course.

These courses culminate in taking the Towing Officer Assessment Record (TOAR) exam. Passing the exam allows you to pilot tugboats for ocean and near-coastal vessels and is overseen by the National Maritime Center (NMC).

Note that captaining tugboats in other regions exceeding a 200 GRT capacity may require additional training as well as passing a specialty TOAR.

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Additional Skills and Experiences Needed

These skills propel candidates like you to excel in your future career as a tugboat captain.

1. Technological Skills

Captaining a towing vessel requires working knowledge and familiarity with a wide variety of vessel equipment, including:

  • Onboard meteorological devices, both physical and digital.
  • Vessel and facility management software, including computer systems that monitor vessel equipment vitals and diagnostics.
  • Route navigation technology, from radar and radio to cutting-edge depth navigational systems.
  • Communication applications and software to correspond with relevant personnel while offshore or en-route.
  • Logbook software to manage day-to-day vessel operations.

2. General Skills

These broader skill sets can strengthen your career progression to becoming a tugboat vessel pilot with a master of towing:

  • Spatial and navigational skills: As a vessel’s core pilot, captains must be able to read, monitor, engage and translate information expressed through equipment gauges. They must also properly orient the tugboat and maintain orientation and spatial awareness at all times and environments.
  • Vessel precision control: Captains must possess fine motor control and good vision to maneuver vessels, orient a boat’s proper positioning, and adjust the vessel in a quick, steady and controlled manner. Captains may also be responsible for operating ancillary equipment or vehicles, such as forklifts or emergency passenger watercraft. 
  • Detail-oriented: Tugboat pilots are responsible for the final inspection of all onboard equipment, procedures, materials and cargo. Therefore, captains must be methodical, attentive and patient, taking the time to assess each vessel component for safety and regulatory compliance. They also must be able to assess cause-and-effect scenarios to provide solutions when problems arise and communicate those solutions clearly to their crew. 
  • Crisis communication: Captains must effectively manage emergencies relating to vessels, routes, equipment and crew. They must maintain structure and order in times of need and choose appropriate crisis management courses of action.

FAQ about Becoming a Tugboat Captain

How Much Do Tug Boat Captains Make?

According to Payscale, the average salary for a Tug Boat Captain is $101,840, with varied incomes from $62,000 to $151,000.

overhead view of a tugboat at sea

Get Your Master of Towing

MITAGS serves as a leading vocational center for driven maritime professionals seeking their master of towing certificate.

Our courses are designed around industry-leading, practical curriculum that prepares you for the realities of captaining a tugboat vessel. View MITAGS tugboat and barge courses, or get in touch with one of our advisers today to learn more about the admissions process.