Reader Meredith wrote in with a question: "Why can boat captains marry people? Can other people in charge of other large vessels perform weddings?"
Meredith, if you plan to have a boat captain officiate your wedding (how Jim and Pam of you), I hope you read this before leaving port. While a good sailor knows that the captain is the ultimate authority on a ship, his or her power extends only so far. At one point, the United States Navy explicitly stated, "The commanding officer shall not perform a marriage ceremony on board his ship or aircraft."
What about non-Navy captains, though? Well that depends on the captain. They can't perform marriages at sea (or on dry land) by virtue of their maritime license alone, and no state has enacted a statute explicitly authorizing ships' captains to officiate marriages. However, if a captain also falls into one of the categories of "persons qualified to solemnize marriages" prescribed in laws of the state they're in, then they're good to go.
In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, my home sweet home, these qualified persons are:
"¢ Active or retired justices, judges or magisterial district judges of the Commonwealth
"¢ Active or senior judges or full-time magistrates of the District Courts of the United States for the Eastern, Middle or Western District of Pennsylvania
"¢ Active, retired or senior bankruptcy judges of the United States Bankruptcy Courts for the Eastern, Middle or Western District of Pennsylvania who are residents of the Commonwealth
"¢ Active, retired or senior judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit who are residents of the Commonwealth
"¢ Mayors of any cities or boroughs of the Commonwealth
"¢ Ministers, priests or rabbis of any regularly established church or congregation
Other states have their own qualified persons. In Florida, public notaries make the list. New Jersey allows "every minister of every religion" to officiate weddings, even those without "established churches or congregations" (i.e. people who get ordained through the Universal Life Church's website). Massachusetts law allows the governor to "designate non-clergy individuals to solemnize a marriage, such as a friend or a family member," which means just about anyone (even sea captains) can officiate a marriage if they fill out an application and submit a letter of recommendation and $25 fee.
Despite what the laws say, some people have gone ahead and gotten married by plain old boat captains anyway, and the courts have been pretty inconsistent when ruling on the validity of these marriages. In one well-known case, Fisher vs. Fisher, a court ruled that a particular marriage solemnized by a ship's captain was valid (and more generally that, absent a statute stating otherwise, an exchange of vows between two consenting parties constituted a valid marriage). In another case, Norman vs. Norman, a court came down on the opposite side of the fence.
So, kids, if you're planning on having a wedding at sea, make sure your captain is qualified. Or just do it and let the courts sort it out later. Or, if you're in New Jersey, I'd be happy to be ordained in the Universal Life Church and perform an official mental_floss wedding for you. I'll take requests via Twitter.