Tugboat Captain Salary: How Much Do Captains Make?

tugboat captain salary

If you’ve ever seen a tugboat, it’s quaint size is a standout difference versus the behemoth boats that it works with. But despite the discrepancy, the tugboat is one of the most resilient vessels out there. Helping to tow and dock vessels that are easily over ten times bigger than itself, the tugboat’s job is anything but small.

To accomplish the herculean task required of a tugboat, there’s a skilled crew on board. The captain oversees most of the activities of the tug, so you might expect them to be tenured maritime professionals. Wondering how to become one and what a tugboat captain salary might be like? Find out here.

How Much Does a Tugboat Captain Make in the US?

To set things straight, it’s worth mentioning that there is no fixed rate for a tugboat captain’s salary. There are lots of factors at play, so fluctuations in salaries occur pretty commonly. Things like location, experience, and skill all have an effect on how much a captain might make.

According to sources, a tugboat captain can make as much as $464,665 annually.

However it’s not exactly too common for a tugboat captain to max out this ceiling salary. On average, most tugboat captains will make roughly $101,840 annually. Their average hourly rate stands at around $40, however it’s not uncommon for tugboat captains to make more than that.

Qualifications of a Tugboat Captain

how much do tugboat captains make

The position of tugboat captain is a lot more technical than your average deckhand. So there are a bunch of requirements and qualifications you have to secure if you want to snag a job as the pilot of a tugboat. Some of these might provide actual certificates, while others are more likely to be acquired after years in the service.

Tugboat Captain License

Yes, these guys have a license to pilot a tugboat. The tug is a serious player in the maritime industry, and a lot of other vessels rely on its service for the safe transport of various goods that travel hundreds of miles across the waves. That said, the tugboat captain needs to be proficient at their job. And what better way to guarantee that than with a license?

The tugboat captain license can be acquired through any US Coast Guard (USCG) accredited training program. Once you complete the course, you’re going to have to take a Towing Officer Assessment Record (TOAR) Exam that measures whether or not you’re fit for the job.

Keep in mind though that while this license might be enough for operating a tugboat for ocean and near-coastal vessels, anything exceeding a 200 GRT capacity will require additional training. They also require a completely different exam if you’re planning on operating one of those larger tugs.

Safety and Emergency Medical Training Certificates

It’s no secret that working on a tugboat can be a dangerous gig. And that’s why it’s important that the crew - and most especially the tugboat captain - has some basic knowledge on safety and emergency medical protocol.

On the safety end, aspiring tugboat captains must be able to present a Merchant Marine License Documentation form that’s up-to-date and marked with a ‘Y’ designation. This means that the applicant has recently completed a Safety and Security Evaluation Branch assessment that ensures they’re knowledgeable of the safety protocol on a tugboat.

Other than that, they should also have training in first aid and CPR. Keep in mind though that for the purpose of a tugboat captain application, not any certificate will do. It must be issued by a USCG-accredited training center to be considered valid for your application.

Previous Maritime Experience

After all, you are applying for the position of ‘captain’. Most companies won’t just take anyone, and look for applicants who have had more than 540 days of experience as a mate of towing. Typically, they also require that 90 of these 540 days have been spent on a single route.

Since it can be hard to get that kind of experience, most of the people who become tugboat captains start off as deckhands (see tugboat deckhand salaries). They then work their way up the ladder, taking the position of steersman or apprentice mate by the time they send in their tugboat captain application.

Technologically Adept

The tugboats of today are anything but dated. These boats are equipped with some of the most advanced maritime tech you’ll find, including a variety of instruments like meteorological devices, computer systems, diagnostic tools, route navigation technology, communication software, and more.

All of that said, the tugboat captain hopefully should be able to operate all of these tools, instruments, gadgets, and devices to guarantee smooth operation all throughout. Fortunately, they teach most of these through tugboat and barge courses that you can take to improve your skills.

Navigational Skills

You’re going to be at the helm of the tugboat. So it’s important that you have more than just a basic understanding of how to maneuver and navigate with your vessel. A tug will often find itself in tight spots and difficult positions, requiring serious know-how on precise vessel control in order to prevent damage to the tug and to the other vessels around it.

Tugboat captains need to have good motor control, relatively clear vision, a steady hand, and fast reflexes. They need to be able to operate their tug with confidence and proper planning, especially since they’re going to be dealing with a lot of expensive vessels that require on their service for proper and efficient management of their cargo.

What Does a Tugboat Captain Do?

what does a tugboat captain do

A tugboat captain is essentially the leader of the tug. He’s the guy who calls the shots and makes sure that everything is done properly and at the right time. Realistically speaking, the tugboat captain is responsible for overseeing everything that happens aboard the tug, which requires extensive knowledge and experience dealing with all the different operations that happen on board.

Some of the tasks that a tugboat captain is responsible for includes:


The tugboat captain is mainly responsible for steering the tug. That includes a lot more than just holding the steering wheel and turning it when necessary. Steering the tug involves knowing local currents, water depths, winds, and weather trends to safely navigate the vessel away from potential danger.

Steering also involves avoiding marine traffic and delicately moving into berths and harbors while connected to boats and barges that need assistance getting into and out of the tight spaces.


There are usually nine crew members on a tugboat, and all of them play a vital role. In most cases, they’ll pretty much operate on their own, performing their tasks without having to be told to. But in certain cases, it may be necessary for the tugboat captain to step in.

This is especially true when determining the proper way to resolve navigational and control problems. When everything’s been said and done, the captain has the final say and his directions will be the instructions for the rest of the crew on board.


The captain’s log is one of the most important documents on board. This provides a detailed account of everything that happens on board the ship. Back in the day, the log was a hand written account. But these days, the captain’s log can be stored digitally through a computer on the tug.

The purpose of the log is to make sure that the boat’s superior’s are fully informed of everything that happens aboard the tug. It also serves as a historical record that may help the improvement or maritime operations in the future. In some cases, the log is also seen as a way to determine what happened to a tug in case of any accidents.

Tips on Becoming a Tugboat Captain

Start as a deckhand whenever possible. It always helps to understand the experiences of every crew member to be able to lead them properly.

Stay updated with the latest news, trends, and skills required of tugboat captains. The industry is ever improving, and newer technologies are always adopted. Don’t get left behind.

Watch your fitness. Although you’re not going to be quite as tired as the deckhand, the work of a tugboat captain is no less demanding. Staying fit both physically and mentally can help mitigate the stress of working the tug.

What Type of Person Best Fits the Job?

Not everyone will fit the description of a tugboat captain. That said, there are certain people who might be more qualified for the position, especially if they can identify as having the following characteristics and qualities:

  • Works well under pressure
  • Quick and efficient problem solver
  • Well trained motor skills for precision boat maneuvering
  • Clear eyesight and good hearing
  • Physically capable
  • Strong leadership qualities
  • Good foresight to avoid potential accidents
  • Strong grasp of weather trends and conditions

The Dangers of Being a Tugboat Captain

Because you’re responsible for the whole tug in general, most of the accidents and injuries that will happen on board might often be accredited to you and your leadership. Unfortunately, tugboats are some of the most dangerous work conditions on the water, prone to incidents such as:

  • Collisions
  • Mechanical failures
  • Capsizing
  • Isolated slips and falls

On the upside, all of these can be easily prevented by proper boat maintenance and by expanding your knowledge and improving your skills when it comes to operating the tug.

Aye Aye, Captain

The work of a tugboat captain is no simple feat. But even with the heavy burden on their shoulders, they do get compensated with a handsome tugboat captain salary. So if you were hoping to pilot a tugboat, make sure you’ve got all the bases covered to steer your tug into smooth operation.

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