America’s first licensed female tugboat captain dies at 82

(ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla.) — Elsbeth Smith, born in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1941, peacefully passed away surrounded by her five children in St. Augustine on Aug. 15 at the age of 82 due to cancer. Co-owner of Smith Maritime from 1968 to 2000, she earned her captain’s license in 1973, making her the first licensed female tugboat captain in American maritime history.

For nearly three decades, Smith sailed on Elsbeth I and Elsbeth II while towing project cargoes and salvage missions. Her remarkable journeys included countless voyages through the Caribbean and South America aboard Elsbeth I. One of her most unforgettable trips involved transporting Amoco drill pipe for Otto Candies in 1974 transiting the Amazon River to Manaus. In 1989, she embarked on her initial trans-Atlantic crossing, followed by a yearlong circumnavigation of the globe aboard Elsbeth II in 1991. This extraordinary feat earned her the distinction of being the first American woman to complete a world circumnavigation on a tugboat.

Elsbeth Smith with dueling phone lines in the Smith Maritime office in 1990. Tradewinds Towing photo

During her time at sea, Smith established a routine of beginning her day with the sunrise navigation watch, followed by dedicated hours of homeschooling for her children. Taking this responsibility seriously, she made sure they diligently completed their daily assignments. Underway, Smith effectively co-managed the tug’s day-to-day operations, and when in port was responsible for sourcing parts and managing ship’s stores. On shore, she also invested a significant amount of her time overseeing the management and operations of Smith Maritime.

Smith is fondly remembered for her talent playing the piano and was known to have upright pianos aboard each tug that amazed customs officials and visitors alike.  Alongside her piano skills, she nurtured a love for learning new instruments, such as the concertina. She was an avid reader and documentarian, maintaining detailed records of each voyage.

Upon retirement, she resided in Amelia Island, Fla., then in Dominica, the birthplace of her fourth child, Dominique Smith. Amid the lush jungles she adored, she embraced her appreciation of nature, cultivating the garden she never had. Her last decade led her to New Orleans and, ultimately, to her final home in St. Augustine.

Smith is survived by her five children: Rachel Smith, Rhea Smith, Rebekah Jordan, Dominique Smith and Hannah Baisley. She adored her 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren and was affectionately known as “Tugboat Grandma.”

The impact she left endures through her co-founding of Tradewinds Towing in 2005, with original partners Lis Neumann, Rachel Smith and Dominique Smith. She utilized her lifelong earnings to acquire Miss Lis, the inaugural tug of the fleet. Tradewinds Towing now oversees a fleet of seven tugs.

– Tradewinds Towing


By Professional Mariner Staff