Nothing is quite as romantic as getting married at sea, with the vast ocean and the setting sun as your backdrop. But if that romantic image includes the ship's handsome captain as the wedding officiant, you might want to mentally scrub him from the picture: In most cases, ship captains are not legally allowed to perform weddings -- unless they also happen to be pastors.
Weddings at sea range from elaborate affairs to simple ceremonies. One thing they usually all have in common, however, is limited size: In most cases, the close quarters of ships simply don't allow for a lot of guests. There aren't any hard-and-fast traditions or duties of the captain during a wedding -- especially in light of the fact that they don't usually conduct the wedding at all. The ship's captain may not even attend your wedding. Still, some cruise lines offer a souvenir wedding certificate signed by the captain. Although it won't hold up in a court of law, it might look nice in a frame on the wall or in a scrapbook.
Origin of the Myth
No one knows exactly where the myth came from that ship captains can perform weddings, but one theory is that the myth arose because in the past, sea voyages lasted for months -- sometimes years. If the captain of the ship is the ultimate authority, and the ship is in international waters, then logic dictates that the captain can just marry the people in his jurisdiction -- in this case, the people on his ship. Logical as it sounds, it simply isn't true.
The myth is so pervasive that in American and Great Britain, captains are expressly forbidden to perform marriages. According to the U.S. Navy Code of Federal Regulations, a wedding officiated by an American captain is not legally binding, and a captain who performs such a wedding might be reprimanded for breaking the rules. In fact, if the ship is registered in New York, the captain could be fined or even serve jail time for breaking this rule.
Exceptions to the Rule
As with many rules, there are exceptions to this one as well. Japanese ship captains can perform weddings as long as they are the captain of a Japanese ship, and as long as the couple has Japanese passports. In America, a few cruise ship captains of Alaskan routes can obtain licenses to perform marriages, but the licenses are only temporary, and they can only be used in certain waters off the Alaska coast. After the wedding, the captain must mail the certificate to the local courthouse to be legally registered on site before the wedding is valid. The same thing holds true for some American cruise ships that travel to Bermuda. The captains of these routes can perform marriages with licenses issued in Bermuda, but only when the ship is in international waters. Many cruise lines offer wedding packages that include licensed officiants. In these cases, the cruise ship must be docked in a U.S. or Caribbean port, and the officiant oversees the ceremony in a dedicated space on the ship or on shore.
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