Life as a Tugboat Captain

Jan 11, 2012

By Lisa Fattori

The life of a tugboat captain, navigating B.C.’s rivers and the western coastline of North America, poses its own challenges and rewards. Whether operating as an inner or outer tugboat captain, the job holds tremendous responsibility, including ensuring the safety of all on-board personnel, maintaining and repairing a vessel’s mechanical systems, navigating tight courses in inclement weather, and meeting strict landing schedules. The position is not for the faint of heart and, although it offers the exhilarating freedom of being out on the open water, the job can be very dangerous and unpredictable.

“Life on a tugboat can be extremely exciting, but also extremely boring,” says Thomas Brown (not his real name), who has been a tugboat master for the last seven years. “You certainly get an adrenalin rush, and you can take pride in making a difficult landing. You’re only as good as your last landing though, and you can go from hero to zero just like that. This is a dangerous industry, where things can go bad very quickly, so you are always interacting to stay on top of the situation.”

Tugboat captains can recount many harrowing tales of near misses, engines that suddenly cut out, and wind and current conditions that threatened to capsize their vessels. As a river skipper for example, tugboat captains may have six to eight swing bridges that have to be negotiated. Shooting a bridge that is 90 feet with a barge that is 72 feet-wide requires a deal of skill and finesse. Miscalculating a maneuver or coming to a dead stop, with a barge in tow, can have devastating consequences.

Tugboat Captain Bill Ford

“I just went to Nanaimo and it was a beautiful ride there and back, but I’ve also done the trip in very rough weather,” says Ron Thibeault, a tugboat captain with FMW Towing, who has been a master for 22 years. “The biggest concern is losing an engine. One time, I lost both engines and had debris stuck in one of my propellers. We called Victoria Marine Communication Traffic Service and another tug came and rescued us.”

Becoming a tugboat captain is also a lifestyle choice that is very unique, when compared with other occupations. Outer boat schedules are typically two weeks on the boat working 12-hour days, and two weeks off. Riverboat captains work 12-hour days for seven days and then have seven days off. For those working the coastline for a two-week time, the job is particularly challenging for personal relationships with workers often missing out on family functions and regular visits with friends. Until a person gets used to the noise of the engine, there is also sleep deprivation and, as skipper of the craft, the captain may get his sleep interrupted to deal with an issue or to land the tugboat.

Since the devastating oil spill of the Exxon Valdez in 1989, tugboat captains hauling oil barges and refined products have experienced more rigorous regulations and more scrutiny by customers. Tugboat companies are expected to have impeccable records, which has led to regular audits of a boat and its crew’s performance, and a lot more paperwork to ensure that guidelines are being met.

“The biggest change over the years has been the increase in regulations following the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” says Bill Ford, port captain with Island Tug and Barge Ltd., a specialist in refined petroleum transportation. “Management systems are much more sophisticated and we have to do a lot of reporting. A little bit of damage, such as a fender bender or a small injury, used to be part of the business, but now we have to report all safety stats to our customers. We strive to exceed best working practices and were the first B.C. tugboat company to become a member of ECOPRO, which is an exceptional compliance program.”

In becoming a tugboat captain, typically, a person got hired on initially as a deckhand and collected hours, experience and schooling before achieving mate status. Achieving captain requires more sea time and additional education to secure various levels, such as a 60 tonne, 350 tonne or 500 tonne master’s ticket. Some can go on to become B.C. Coast Pilots, an elite group that moves large tankers. While courses provide education about ship stability, the Canada Shipping Act and the legalese of the job, accumulating multiple hours of hands-on experience is essential to progressing from deckhand to master.

The B.C. tugboat industry is a small industry that pays well, which is attractive for a lot of people. Not too many occupations offer the opportunity to earn $60,000 to $100,000 a year for 163 days of work. Today, the industry is much more competitive and, while it may be difficult to get into, a person’s perseverance and patience will pay off in the long run.

“What I love most about this job is the water, the freedom and, of course, the boats,” Ford says. “This is a good industry to get into. My advice to anyone wanting to become a captain is to apply to smaller companies and to have some patience.”