Posted by: towmasters | September 4, 2009

The 26-Foot Long Towing Vessel, Assistance Towing & Recreational Boaters From Hell: What License?

A recent e-mail asked this question: “Is the operator (captain) of a vessel 26 feet in length or less engaged in towing, whether it be towline or pushing, required to hold an appropriate license?” That’s a good question, probably one that many people wonder about, and it was understood as referring strictly to commercial towing vessels.

The simple answers are yes (if the towing vessel is 26 feet or greater) and no (if the towing vessel is less than 26 feet long). The statutory and regulatory breakpoint for commercial towing vessels, as established under federal law in 46 USC § 8904, is right at 26 feet or 8 meters (the conversion actually comes out to 7.93 meters) in length, and the wording of both the law and the regulations born from it is very specific on this. The requirement for a person to be licensed (we refuse to legitimize the Coast Guard’s bullshit rewrite of custom and history; i.e. their recent substitution of the term endorsement in place of license in the new MMC) specifically as a master, mate or pilot of towing vessels only applies to towing vessels of at least 26 feet in length, as per 46 CFR § 15.610(a). U.S-documented towing vessels of less than 26 feet must be operated by U.S. citizens, as per 46 CFR § 15.805(b), but no Coast Guard license, or any form of evidence of competency, is required. Is this a good idea? Probably not, but it’s the way it is. The Coast Guard, for its part, doesn’t seem to have a problem with it. If they did they could either exercise their discretionary authority to change it or, if it goes beyond that, express their concerns and recommendations to Congress by introducing a legislative change proposal. To the best of our knowledge no such proposal is pending or even being contemplated, therefore we can only assume that it’s fine by them. This is a rather odd position to take given that, despite some holdouts, most states now require recreational boaters to be either licensed or educated in at least some minimal way. This issue has been on the NTSB’s most-wanted list of safety improvements for a long time, but the 50-states-doing-their-own-thing is apparently also a potential quagmire of conflict. You’d think, with each state long ago accepting motor vehicle driver licenses from all of the other states, it couldn’t be all that difficult to sort this out. C’est la guerre…..

So to recap, it goes like this: as clearly specified in the manning requirements at 46 CFR § 15.805(a)(5), and reiterated at 46 CFR § 15.910(a)

  • A master of towing vessels of 26 feet or more in length must have a license as:
  1. Master of Towing Vessels, as per 46 CFR § 15.610(a) and 46 CFR § 15.805(a)(5)OR
  2. Master of Towing Vessels (Limited) when operating solely in a limited area, as per 46 CFR § 15.610(b)(1)(ii)OR
  3. Master of inspected, self-propelled vessels of more than 200 GRT (500 GRT, 1,600 GRT or unlimited tonnage) along with a towing endorsement, as per 46 CFR § 15.610(a) and 46 CFR § 15.805(a)(5)(ii)OR
  4. Master of inspected, self-propelled vessels of more than 200 GRT along with a completed Towing Officer’s Assessment Record (TOAR) signed by a Designated Examiner, as per 46 CFR § 15.610(a) and 46 CFR § 15.805(a)(5)(i)
  • A master of towing vessels of less than 26 feet: no C.G. license is required, but U.S. citizenship is.

However, loopholes and contradictory or less-than-clear language is not uncommon in the regulations. For instance, 46 CFR § 15.805(a)(5) states unconditionally that a master of towing vessels 26 feet or greater must have a master’s license (one of the aforementioned types). But the regulations at 46 CFR § 15.610(b)(1)(v) state that ≥26-feet towing vessels must have an officer designated as Master and holding, amongst the listed choices, a license as mate or first-class pilot of inspected, self-propelled vessels of greater than 200 GRT (Domestic service only). Do they mean a license restricted to “Domestic service only” or a vessel with a domestic waters-only route restriction? Either way, it sure seems to indicate that a mate can serve as master. Hello?!

At least the old “Gulf” loophole, at 46 USC § 8905(b) and in the regulations at  46 CFR § 15.610(a), which allows operators of towing vessels of less than 200 GRT engaged solely in mineral resource (oil) exploitation work to have no license at all, has finally been marked for extinction in section 6 of H.R. 2652, aka the Maritime Safety Act of 2009. This is still only a bill, though, so we’ll believe it if and when we see it in writing as a law.

Meanwhile, real commercial towing vessels (tugs and towboats) should never be confused with assistance towing vessels. Assistance towing means the towing of disabled vessels (those that are broken down for whatever reason: bad fuel, out of fuel, fouled prop, mechanical/electrical failure, grounded, etc.) for consideration (money or any other form of compensation). This would include such outfits as Sea Tow, Safe/Sea, TowBoat U.S., etc. The regulations at 46 CFR § 15.610(a) specifically exempt the operators of assistance towing vessels, regardless of their size, from needing a towing vessel license or endorsement. These operators must still be licensed as per 46 CFR § 15.410. They may operate their vessels within the scope of any license as master of inspected, self-propelled vessels sufficient to cover the tonnage of their particular vessel (25 GRT, 50 GRT, 100 GRT, 200 GRT, 500 GRT, 1,600 GRT or unlimited tonnage). If their license is for 200 GRT or less, however, they must also have an assistance towing endorsement, in accordance with 46 CFR § 10.482. They are also restricted from engaging in any other kind of towing, without exception. A disabled vessel is strictly defined by regulation (46 CFR § 15.301) as “a vessel that needs assistance, whether docked, moored, anchored, aground, adrift or under way; but does not mean a barge or any other vessel not regularly operated under its own power.” That makes it very clear that towing anything else besides disabled vessels would simply be illegal, and this is at it should be unless they want to meet the higher standards that go with the towing licenses.

So there you have it.


  1. Your explanation of the regulations is very explicit and well done. I was wondering what your opinion is on the need or requirements for licensing those who tow small dock building barges, move floating docks around for boat shows, move vessels like old houseboats which have had the engines removed and are no longer self propelled? A second part to that question is associated with the towing of a vessel which is not by definition disabled but simply needs to be moved and by regulation or definition would not fall under the “Assistance Towing” endorsement and seems to fall under the requirement of a “Master of Tow” license by regulation. Does this make sense when the same vessel the week before was towed in and was disabled and fell under “Assitance Towing” . What would make the most sense to the towing world to be able to properly license mariners to perform these tasks legally and safely?

  2. […] Towmasters: the Master of Towing Vessels Assoc. Forum has “The 26-Foot Long Towing Vessel, Assistance Towing & Recreational Boaters From Hell: What License…“ […]

  3. I think your ‘less than clear’ language example isn’t so cloudy as you think. I don’t have the regs sitting in front of me, but I think 15.810 relates to vessel manning – who needs to be onboard. For towing vessels that means there has to be someone licensed as either Master greater than 200 GRT with TOAR or Master Towing.

    15.610 relates to the operation – who’s in control on the bridge. For towing vessels that means a Master Towing, Mate (Pilot) Towing, or Master greater than 200 GRT with a TOAR.

    The First Class pilot reference you cite is part of a section (15.610(b)) that expired in 2006 and is no longer applicable – that’s what your link says.

  4. Since you don’t have the regulations in front of you, as I did when I wrote the post, I recommend you go back to the regulations and reexamine them very carefully. 46 CFR – Part 15.610(b) is clearly referring to manning in that it says “Every towing vessel covered by paragraph (a) of this section must carry at least the following personnel:” 46 CFR – Part 15.610(b)(1) , which immediately follows, then says “An officer designated Master and holding a license as-” 46 CFR – Part 15.610(b)(1)(i) thru (v) then goes on to list those specific licenses that the designated master may hold. Under (v) it says “Mate or first class pilot of inspected, self-propelled vessels with a license for service in vessels of greater than 200 gross register tons (Domestic service only).” So it sure looks like it says that a licensed Mate can serve as a master to me. The mate must have a towing endorsement or completed TOAR, but a license as mate is still only a license as mate. The only question left is what exactly do they mean by “Domestic service only.” These are supposed to be readable and understandable to the people that have to comply with them. You shouldn’t need a lawyer to help you figure it out.

    46 CFR – Part 15.610(b)(2) says “Another officer, if the vessel is operating more than 12 hours in any 24-hour period, holding a license as-” It’s pretty clear that this is the part that refers to what licenses the mate, if one is required, must hold, and this is separate and distinct from the requirements for the designated master.

    As far as my link saying that 15.610(b) “expired” in 2006, it says no such thing. It’s referring to the mandatory phase-in date of the towing licenses/endorsements/TOAR requirements, but it doesn’t change the manning requirements per se. The link is to the applicable page in the 2008 online edition (revised as of October 1st, 2008) of Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which is the most recent one available online. The 2009 edition has yet to be published, and I haven’t read anything about any changes being mades to that section. Poorly worded and confusing or not, these regulations are currently in effect until they are revised or deleted. It’s for these reasons that I say that the regulations are convoluted, scattered and contradictory. A rewrite is in order, and hopefully these will get the attention they need.

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