She’s Got Pull

The only female tugboat captain in Hawaii found her calling at age 17. She has driven everything from a dinghy to a 900-foot oil tanker.

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Story by Lehia Apana | Photo by Darrell Wong

maui tugboat captain

Liz Bunch-Spalding

TITLE: Tugboat Captain

INTO THE WILD: For Liz Bunch-Spalding, a “rough day at the office” could mean battling twenty-foot seas as forty-knot winds blow whitecaps across the ocean’s surface, leaving a trail of salty spray in their wake. With its diesel engines roaring, she’ll steer the squat-but-sturdy Tiger 7 tugboat into the chaos to retrieve an arriving vessel.

“Kahului Harbor is challenging because of the weather,” says Liz. “You need to be able to react in high-stress situations, because it goes from all cool to really bad in .02 seconds.”

SHIP TO SHORE: Liz is Maui’s only resident tugboat captain (though reinforcements fly in from O‘ahu periodically). She and her two-man crew are a virtual lifeline to the island’s economy, helping to deliver everything from building materials and cars to toilet paper and canned goods.

The eighty-six-foot Tiger 7 guides larger vessels — like cargo ships, oil tankers and cruise liners — through narrow waterways and foul weather. While the tug delivers the power, Liz adds the finesse, keeping watch from inside a wraparound glass pilothouse whose control board resembles the flight deck of the starship Enterprise. With multiple limbs engaged at once, she steers the boat and controls the winch lines, as her foot taps on a radio pedal to strategize with the incoming ship’s captain.

ON BOARD: Liz’s path to tugboat captain began when she was seventeen and got a crew job on a local snorkel boat. She had found her calling. Today, the California Maritime Academy graduate has driven “everything from a dinghy to a 900-foot oil tanker.” In 2010, at age thirty-one, she became Hawai‘i’s only female tugboat captain, a distinction she still holds.

GENDER BENDER: This mother of two occupies a space dominated by men, but doesn’t make gender an issue. “When I was hired, the tug owner [P&M Marine Services] was like, ‘I don’t care if you’re yellow, black, white, male, female . . . whatever. If you can do the job, you can do the job.’”

LOGGING HOURS: Tug life means Liz is always within an arm’s reach of her phone, ready to race back to the harbor to assist a vessel. “You’re always on call,” she says, then adds with a shrug, “That’s shipping. It can be rough, but I love it. I would never trade it for a nine-to-five job.”

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