Imagine sunshine sparkling on water. You and your soon-to-be spouse face each other on the deck of a luxury yacht decorated with ivy and white roses. As you say your vows, the wind ruffles your hair. Then it's time for slices of cake and toasts of champagne as you sail off into the sunset. While it sounds like a scene from a too-good-to-be-true commercial, the experience is actually more affordable than many traditional wedding venues. Depending on the yacht, you can find all-inclusive wedding packages for under $700.
Look for a Vessel with History
While you can snap wedding pictures from any dock and get a pretty, waterfront shot, there's no substitute for real substance. To enrich your wedding story, look for a vessel that's backed by history. Ask the captain about the yacht's past. Boats are like people; they have names and many swear they have personalities, too. It's important to find one you like on a personal level.
Captain Iris Clarke is the third generation of her family to sail the yacht named "Selina II." Her grandfather sailed for 36 years and her parents were the yacht's stewards for 39 years. "She came to me in 2001 and I asked my dad, 'How much do you spend every year to maintain her?' It was a really big number." In addition, the yacht needed a little maintenance and TLC. Capt Iris gave "Selina II" a full restoration and started offering chartered rides. "It was a win-win-win for everybody. It was a win for me because it helped me afford the yacht. It's a win for the yacht, because she gets taken care of properly. It's a win for the guests because they get the opportunity to be on a private family's yacht from the Gatsby era. She has a wonderful heart and a great spirit about her."
Tie the Knot Legally
Contrary to popular myth, not all ships' captains are able to perform wedding ceremonies. In order to legalize your ceremony, you'll need to charter a vessel with a legally recognized officiant–or bring along your own. As an ordained minister, Capt Iris serves this role but also welcomes other types of officiants on board. So far, "Selina II" has been the site of many types of weddings including Irish hand fastenings, Buddhist ceremonies, and even a Jewish and Catholic mixed service. Check with your yacht's captain to make sure your marriage can be legalized in the fashion you desire. Captains who are familiar with the area can suggest a trusted local officiant as well as other vendors if you will be arriving from out of town.
Ask Logistical Questions
Before you reserve your date on the yacht, ask the relevant logistical questions. Is the price all-inclusive? In addition to chartering the vessel itself, you also need to pay for the marriage license fee, state taxes, the officiant fee (which may or may not include customization), decorations, food, and beverages. All-inclusive packages are common for couples who want to show up and have everything ready for their perfect day. Marriage license laws vary by state, however, so research the specific laws because you may need to apply for a license a few days in advance of your onboard ceremony.
If you have specific preferences about the look of your wedding yacht, discuss them ahead of time with the captain. For safety reasons, you may not be able to drape decorations on certain parts of the vessel. However, by meeting and talking ahead of time, you can find compromises that suit your artistic vision. Don't forget to ask the captain or officiant what outfit they plan to wear.
How many guests do you want at your ceremony? "Selina II" only holds six passengers. Yachts are strictly limited by safety regulations, but it is sometimes possible to squeeze more guests on board if you don't want the boat to cast off from the dock. You can add even more guests if you combine a ceremony on board with a dockside reception. Some couples opt for an intimate, wedding-party-only sail while the larger party convenes on the dock.
Have a Contingency Plan (or Several)
One common worry when planning an onboard ceremony is what to do in the case of bad weather. It helps to have several contingency plans in place. Capt Iris advises, "Plan A is to have the weather be beautiful. Plan B, if it's just raining lightly, is to put an awning over the cockpit area and have a ceremony on the water anyway. Plan C, if it's very windy, is to have a service below decks in the cabin. Plan D is use a landside option near the boat or under a lighthouse. Plan E is to reschedule for another day. But I've only ever done that once. Most people are already dressed up and eager to go." For the well-prepared wedding party, even stormy skies can't put a damper on the day.
Churning skies aren't the only worry when hopping on board, however. If you're worried about turbulence of a different sort, don't take any chances. Pop a non-drowsy Dramamine ahead of time. Even if the yacht is stable and roomy, sheer nervousness sometimes contributes to a feeling of seasickness. Knowing you've got protection will keep an upset stomach at bay just in case. If you're in need of further comfort, Capt Iris says, "I've been chartering 10 years now and never had a guest get seasick." Besides, it's hard to get seasick if, like Capt Iris, you're sailing on a river.
A Smooth Ride for Same-Sex Couples
Because Capt Iris sails in Maryland, which legalized same sex unions earlier this year, her yacht has become a popular destination for gay and lesbian couples. "The day after DOMA was struck down, we got six wedding inquiries," Capt Iris recalls. "Selina II" was the site of four same-sex unions on the Fourth of July alone. (Each on their own private trip, of course.) "Don't come where you're tolerated," Capt Iris is fond of saying. "Come where you're celebrated." Aboard the "Selina II," the focus is on luxury; not politics.
Choose a Yacht with Heart
Getting married on the water isn't too different from getting married on land. There are some logistical differences, such as choosing a sand ceremony over a candle ceremony because of strong breezes. Instead of walking down a long aisle, you can walk down a dock instead. The spirit of a yacht wedding, however, is the same as a land wedding. When the focus is on love, it makes for smooth sailing.
Captain Iris Clarke captains the vintage catboat Selina II in St. Michaels, Maryland. She offers two-hour sails, sunset champagne cruises, and private charters as well as wine tasting cruises, moonlight cruises, and overnight excursions.