So you're in a rush to get married, only you don't want to go through the hassle of standing in line for a marriage license, getting a blood test, and blowing thousands of dollars on an elaborate ceremony. What do you do?
Well, you simply hire out the nearest sea captain (the saltier the better), have him take you in his boat beyond the 12-mile mark and then let him perform your wedding ceremony. After all, you're in international waters. Anything goes, right?
Well... wrong. Captains can perform marriages, but they need a license to do so, just like anyone else would. There are no laws that "automatically" grant captains this right, although you wouldn't know that by watching television, where a sizable chunk of nuptials are performed by salty sea dogs. (Bonus points to the captain if he wears a patch over one eye and reads the vows to the couple in a pirate-y accent.)
(Speaking of pirates, there was actually a wedding aboard a pirate radio ship off Britain in the 1960s - one of the DJs married another DJ's sister - which was of course broadcast live.)
The trope may have originated in the Age of Sail when Europeans would have to travel by ship for months at a time to reach far flung colonies. A couple could meet, court, and marry all while still enroute to their destination. The marriages had to be registered in the port of call, but otherwise were considered fully legal in most seafaring nations.
Contrast Burial at Sea, another ceremony often officiated by captains.
- There's a Mass Effect 3 fanfic out there where Shepard, The Captain of the starship Normandy, "copes" with the stress of the Reaper invasion by "marrying" various people to each other. This includes marrying Joker and Samantha Traynor to EDI, and sending the Illusive Man an email informing him he's now married to the entire Reaper species.
- The African Queen had the two leads being married by the captain of a German military ship seconds before they were to be executed. (The captain may or may not have been authorized to perform such a ceremony, but how could he turn down the last starry-eyed request of a couple about to die?)
- Responsible for one of the finest lines in history: "I now pronounce you husband and wife - proceed with the execution."
- In this case it was also a means of buying time and distracting the warship's crew, given that their own wrecked ship, with armed torpedoes jutting out of its bow, lay directly in the warship's path.
- The Captain may have also figured it wouldn't make much difference whether he was licensed anyway, since he was planning to have both people hanged immediately after.
- Pirates of the Caribbean:
Barbossa: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today... TO NAIL YER GIZZARDS TO THE MAST, YE POXY CUR!
- Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest: Jack Sparrow suggests that Elizabeth marry him at sea... and that he also officiate the ceremony.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End: Will asks Elizabeth to marry him in the midst of the epic climatic battle at sea in the middle of a maelstrom (their planned wedding at the beginning of the second film having been interrupted with a few arrests among the wedding party). Elizabeth at first protests ("I don't think now is the best time!") before agreeing and asking Barbossa to marry them right there mid-battle ("I'M A LITTLE BUSY AT THE MOMENT!"). Barbossa thinks she's mad, but recites it anyway while all three keep fighting Davy Jones' undead fishy crew.
- In a very different variant, The Wheel of Time has pushy Nynaeve insist her stoic Love Interest marry her immediately once they're reunited on a Sea Folk ship, only to discover mid-ceremony that the required vows are rather different and unusually specific in their culture.
- Lovers Desdemona and Lefty took advantage of being on a ship where no one knew them by faking a courtship and getting married in Middlesex. The secrecy was necessary: they were siblings.
- Star Wars Expanded Universe:
- At the end of Jedi Trial Anakin Skywalker, in his capacity as a general in the Grand Army of the Republic, marries two of the book's secondary characters.
- Played perfectly straight offscreen in X-Wing: The Bacta War. After Rogue Squadron (with occasional help) defeats the bacta cartel, and wanting to avoid weeks or months of her father dogging Corran's every step on the way to the wedding, Corran and Mirax get married—by Wedge Antilles, who is in fact not even a "real" captain, but a starfighter commander. However, as the Lusankya was surrendered to him personally, he became its de facto commander... which is apparently considered close enough according to New Republic law. note
- Played as Gallows Humor in Tim Powers' Declare. While Cassagnac, Andrew, and Elena are hiding out in a kind of barge in East Berlin just after World War II, Andrew and Elena finally say that they love each other. Cassagnac laughs and says "This is the spirit for dying. The captain of a ship can perform marriages — and so I hereby pronounce you two man and wife. Kiss the bride quick, Andrew, before you die."
- The Aubrey-Maturin series:
- Subverted at the end of HMS Surprise when Jack Aubrey proposed immediate marriage to Sophia - to be officiated by a parson his ship transports. She refused anyway, as she wanted a proper marriage in church and with consent of her mother.
- Stephen Maturin had wanted to marry Diana Villiers aboard the H.M.S. Shannon in The Fortune of War, and the captain was preparing to do it (he even had the proper passages marked in the Book of Common Prayer) when he was interrupted by the imminent ship-to-ship duel with the U.S.S. Chesapeake.
- Played straight at the end of The Surgeon's Mate when Stephen and Diana are married by William Babbington (former Aubrey's Plucky Middie and later on trusted lieutenant, now newly promoted to the captaincy of HMS Oedipus), while crossing the English channel, having just escaped from France, thus restoring her British citizenship and allowing her to disembark in England. Turns out that Babbington is Crazy-Prepared and even knows that the wedding procedure is just before the section on burial service in his manual. They subsequently married again in church in a Noodle Incident between The Letter of Marque and The Thirteen Gun Salute, because their first wedding was not recognized as canonical by the Catholic Church, which is a rather important point for Stephen.
- In Clarissa Oakes Reverend Nathaniel Martin, an unbeneficed clergyman who serves on Surprise as Maturin's assistant, marries Clarissa Harvill (a runaway convict from Australia) to Mr. Oakes, one of Jack's midshipmen, thus giving her some legal protection.
- A variation is presented in Empire of Ivory where the captain of a refugee-packed dragon transport is being married to the captain of one of the dragons on board. Given that they were in a bit of a rush the ship's chaplain is deemed the only one legally fit to do so.
- In the Margaret Weis/Tracy Hickman series The Death Gate Cycle, the protagonist and miscellaneous refugees are escaping a catastrophe, and two characters ask the protagonist to marry them, citing this tradition. He agrees reluctantly.
- However, they decide not to go forward with this plan once confronted with the somewhat bleak vows of the captain's culture and in an unusual twist, cancel their plans altogether as a result of the tension which arises from being stuck on a boat after narrowly escaping the aforementioned catastrophe.
- In Golding's "To the Ends of the Earth" trilogy it happens once, and the captain accidentally begins to read the funeral service... (well, the groom was actually dying, but he Got Better)
- Two characters get married in space by a transport ship captain in one of the The Lost Fleet books. However, since we have no idea which regulations apply to The Alliance Space Navy hundreds of years in the future, this may be justified.
- In a later book Captain Desjani marries several different couples, in the middle of a battle. The fleet is expecting to perform a Heroic Sacrifice so during a lull in the actual battle several couples decide that they want to get married before they die.
- In James Clavell's Gai-Jin Captain Marlowe of HMS Pearl officiates the wedding of Malcolm Struan and Angelique Richaud. Although Marlowe professes some doubts, these are related only to the fact that both Malcolm and Angelique are still legally minors and bridegroom's mother Tess Struan expressly forbade the marriage, so he's unsure "if the marriage would stick". (The novel is set in the 1860s, when both Royal Navy ship captains and British merchant navy masters still had uncontested right to perform perfectly legal weddings aboard their ships.) The wedding is then subjected to review by Admiral Ketterer, commanding officer of his squadron, who grudgingly rules the marriage legal from the Navy's point of view, as there's no mention of age limit in the section on weddings in the Naval Regulations. Whether Tess Truan (who wields rather enormous informal influence in Hong Kong) would succeed in challenging its legality in civil court is still left open - and rendered moot by subsequent developments.
- In an episode of Gilligan's Island, the Howells learn via a radio report that the minister who married them was never ordained and thus, they believed themselves to be unmarried. They tried to rectify this by having the Skipper marry them on a raft, but after bickering for awhile, they call the wedding off. They soon learn that the radio report was in error and had named the wrong minister. (The irony here is that, according to the law, even if their minister was a fake, the Howells themselves would still have remained legally married, since they had believed him to be genuine at the time. See this Straight Dope entry for more details on the subject. But then it's ''Gilligan's Island''.)
- Lampshaded on The Love Boat, when Captain Steubing performs a mass wedding on the Valentine's Day cruise to Mexico. He specifically says that the Mexican government granted him special permission for the occasion.
- Almost done by Lily and Marshall in How I Met Your Mother when the planning process for their wedding starts to get too stressful. They grab the rest of the gang, head to Atlantic City, locate a ship and a captain and are about to say I Do...when they suddenly decide that they actually do want the rest of their families and friends to be present for their marriage.
- Marcy's wedding to her second husband in Married... with Children. She made the mistake of allowing Al Bundy to make all the arrangements and soon found him cutting corners to save (and pocket) money. Among the things he did was forgo a minister and hire the captain of a garbage scow to perform the marriage via CB radio.
- Mork of Mork & Mindy is asked by a pair of teenage friends to perform their secret wedding, justified by the fact that, as Mork rationalized it, he came on a ship, he was the only person on that ship, so he must have been the captain.
- PRE-Teen - two kids who wanted an excuse to eat lots of candy (they understood marriage to be a licence to "do things that kids couldn't"). Which made them sick.
- Nash Bridges, a police captain, performs a marriage in one episode, with the excuse that the division he is captain of is currently headquartered on a boat.
- Offered on The Office (US) when the captain of a Lake Scranton booze cruise (Rob Riggle!) offers to marry Pam and Roy on the spot.
- Done for real when Jim and Pam run away from their big wedding, to have their own private ceremony first... on the nearest sightseeing-boat.
- The producers of Remington Steele royally pissed off many Shippers when they had Remington attempting to enter into a Citizenship Marriage with a random hooker, then had him and Laura wed at the end of the episode by a sea captain in a surly ceremony that wasn't anything near the consummation that many fans of the show were hoping for.
- To throw water on things still further, the officiant wasn't even the actual captain, just an random crew member on a fishing boat who'd been given temporary command while the captain was in port. A later episode has Steele (apparently successfully) arguing to the authorities that the marriage was still legally valid.
- Star Trek:
- The original series plays this very straight, with Captain Kirk marrying a soon-to-be-doomed couple and making mention of the tradition of captains marrying passengers to each other. (Of course, this is The Future, and he is the highest civil authority on a ship billions of miles in deep space, so it's perhaps not unnatural for him to be allowed to perform a duty like this.) Kirk's speech at the beginning of the wedding is paraphrased whenever a Federation officer officiates a wedding in later series.
- Captain Picard follows suit at O'Brien and Keiko's wedding.
- Commander Sisko probably has the best claim of all of them, at least for the Bajorans, who consider him a Messianic Archetype. Sisko is also shown to marry some of his (non-Bajoran) troops. In one episode he lamented the fact that he officiated a dead Red Shirt's wedding.
- Admiral Ross performed the ceremony for Sisko and Kassidy Yates, also giving the same speech as Kirk and Picard.
- Tom Paris' wedding with B'elanna Torres in Star Trek: Voyager was not shown on screen, but it is generally assumed that Captain Janeway must have conducted the ceremony.
- As was the case on the "Silver Blood" duplicate of the ship in "Course: Oblivion".
- Esteban and Francesca are married aboard the S.S. Tipton in The Suite Life on Deck episode "Mother of the Groom."
- Played with on Happy Days. Fonzie and Jenny Piccolo attend a Halloween party held aboard a ship dressed as a bride and groom. The captain of the ship is dressed as a priest, so they decide to have a pretend wedding. Hilarity ensues when the marriage is initially declared legal and binding, but is resolved later.
- In the Dutch sitcom Vrienden Voor Het Leven, Eddie and Ellen do this during their first attempt at marriage.
- In Lois & Clark, after Lex Luthor's failed wedding to Lois, the will reading reveals he was already married. The wedding turned out to be one of these, and the heroes spent some time tracking down the captain to find out who the wife was.
- Luke on Gilmore Girls went on a cruise with his girlfriend Nicole. When he came back, the two were married. He explains that they got swept up in the moment (the rest of the passengers on the ship were either engaged, on the cruise to get married, or celebrating a wedding anniversary), so they had the captain marry them. They decided on a divorce before leaving the ship.
- Then a few seasons later, when he's engaged to Lorelei and realizes how much he's hurt her by putting off their wedding and tries to elope with her, he mentions that "Apparently a ship's captain can do it," as if he didn't have firsthand knowledge.
- The pilot episode of Step by Step reveals that Frank and Carol have been secretly married by the ship's captain while on a cruise. Breaking the news to their kids (her two daughters and son, his two sons and daughter) that they will all be moving in together is what chiefly drives the episode.
- In "The Captive Castaways," a 1934 sequence in the Mickey Mouse comic strip, Mickey and Minnie are prisoners on Peg Leg Pete's smuggling ship. Mickey gains Pete's trust by pretending to want to join Pete's criminal operation. Since Pete wants to marry the decidedly unwilling Minnie, Mickey persuades Pete to make him captain of the ship temporarily so that he can perform the wedding. Rather than performing the ceremony, Mickey explains that, as captain, his word is law aboard the ship, and orders Pete to be put in irons.
- In the Martin Short episode of Muppets Tonight, Ed Grimley (Short's character from SCTV and Saturday Night Live) needs to get married in order to inherit his uncle's fortune ($85 Canadian). Moby the goldfish (who in this skit is a Muppet) declares that he can perform the ceremony because he's a sea captain.
- Affectionately parodied in the musical The Drowsy Chaperone: The show-within-a-show ends with the best man neglecting to hire a minister for the wedding, so he enlists a passing aviatrix (reasoning that she is a "captain of a ship of the air") to marry all the happy couples en route to the honeymoon.
- Inverted in H.M.S. Pinafore. The lovers, a sailor and the captain's daughter, intend to elope and get married ashore.
- The Order of the Stick:
- Red Herring Shirt couple Kazumi and Daigo are married at sea for the fairly simple reason that their whole society has been driven from their home and is currently a wandering fleet. They opt to share Kazumi's surname, as Daigo's keeping his secret as a last resort. As a wedding gift, Hinjo promotes them both to nobility, on the basis of not being backstabbing scumbags like the entire rest of the nobility.
- The ceremony is also conducted by Durkon, an actual priest (albeit a cleric of Thor). When he asks why they didn't ask Hinjo (both a Paladin and their ruler, so also qualified for weddings), they explain Kazumi is already eight weeks pregnant and they feared he wouldn't approve.
- In Pirates of Dark Water, a mad alchemist fell in love with Ren (because he reminded her of his father Primus), and asked the Big Bad to marry them in exchange for turning over Ren's Macguffins. He indulged her, although as he confided to Ren, "I wouldn't expect much of a honeymoon..."
- Spoofed by Calculon: "As a doctor and captain of this hospital ship, I now pronounce you man and wife with six months to live."
- Spoofed again, with Leela using this as a threat to the crew, claiming she can marry them against their will.
- In an episode of The Simpsons, the Sea Captain is seen performing a wedding ceremony for a man and a cow.
- An episode of Godzilla: The Series ends with this, a more normal island wedding having been interrupted by the Monster of the Week.
- In Popeye and Son, this is how Popeye and Olive ended up married - thanks to Bluto, the two of them ended up on a ship far away from the place the ceremony was to be held, so Popeye had the captain of the ship marry them.
- Giovanni Vigliotto, a famous fraudster, had married over a hundred women to swindle them out of their money. He managed to pull this trope off four times... with four passengers of the same liner on the same cruise.
- In the Real Life legality of marriage performed by ship's captain varies according to the legislation of the flag state of the ship. There are some jurisdictions in which captains are not allowed to perform regular weddings, but can perform wedding in a 'case of emergency' (definition of emergency again depending on the national law - and it can be presumed that in most of vehicle-related emergency situations The Captain would not give very high priority to someone's wedding ceremony - so the emergency most often would be the in articulo mortis Last Wish Marriage when one of the spouses-to-be is dying), in some it even applies to captains/pilots in command of airliners - the logic being that they're Closest Thing We Got to a public official/representative of the government on board a ship.
- It's possible for a sea captain to be qualified to perform marriage ceremonies through some other avenue. Some jurisdictions have some pretty low bars, such as by being a public notary or a minister of any religion. It's not helpful for the impromptu or emergency marriages that happen in fictionland, but anyone who thinks a marriage at sea would be romantic could hire a sea captain who meets the legal requirements in some other way.