This question is for my friend Irene. Were ship’s captains ever allowed to marry people while cruising the deep blue? If not, can you tell me where this rumor emerged? –Magenta, Washington, D.C.

So far as I can tell, sea captains in the United States cannot now and have not ever been able to perform marriages at sea or anywhere else, unless they also happen to be recognized ministers or JPs or something. The same goes for sea captains in Britain and the Soviet Union. However–and this is the interesting part–this myth is so widely believed, not only among the general public but among sailors, that both the United States Navy and the British Mercantile Marine Office have taken the extraordinary step of explicitly forbidding captains to do free-lance weddings. Let me quote from the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 32 (National Defense), Subtitle A (Department of Defense), Chapter VI (Department of the Navy), Subchapter A (United States Navy Regulations and Official Records), Part 700 (United States Navy Regulations), Subpart G (The Commanding Officer), Rule 716 (colloquially known as 32 CFR 700.716):

“The commanding officer shall not perform a marriage ceremony on board his ship or aircraft. He shall not permit a marriage ceremony to be performed on board when the ship or aircraft is outside the territory of the United States, except: (a) In accordance with local laws . . . and (b) In the presence of a diplomatic or consular official of the United States.”

Similarly, the official logbook supplied to ship’s captains by the British Mercantile Marine Office warns that shipboard marriages performed by the captain are not legal.

So where did the idea arise? I dunno, but, as always, I can speculate. Sailors have it drummed into them that the captain (more properly known as the master) is the supreme authority on the ship, and one might easily jump to the conclusion that said authority extends to civil matters. In some jurisdictions, in fact, it does. The Soviet Union allows its masters to attest wills and draw up documents concerning births and deaths (although not to perform marriages). Furthermore, many merchant services, including those in Britain and the U.S., require masters to note marriages, births, deaths, collisions, etc, in the ship’s log. The master thus becomes the registrar of any marriages. Finally, we know that in days of yore ships might be at sea or at least beyond the reach of civilization for two years or more. It thus seems reasonable to suppose that a master would be empowered to officiate at a marriage rather than have some local heathen do it. Nonetheless–and I’ve checked out seaman’s guides going back to 1850–it does not appear that this has ever been the case. Another myth cruelly shattered. If anything further turns up, however, I’ll let you know.

I have been puzzled for many years about clocks, specifically why all clocks shown in catalogs are set to 8:20. Some goof once told me they were set that way because that was the time John Kennedy was shot, a notion I dismissed in a hurry as being several hours off. I guessed on my own that they set the hands that way to show the manufacturer’s name, often imprinted below the 12:00 position, but it seems setting the clock at 8:15 or 10:15 would do that just as well. –James Derk, Evansville, Indiana

If you’d continued along the promising line of reasoning you’ve just described, James, it would certainly have dawned on you sooner or later that 8:20 makes for a pleasingly symmetrical arrangement of the hands. So does 10:10, an arrangement you see almost as often. Relative to the vertical axis they both make a sort of equiangular tripod, if you follow me, that strikes most people as more attractive than, say, 9:15. The practice dates back at least to the 1920s, judging from the ads in (appropriately) Time magazine. You were right to reject the JFK story as bogus; it’s simply a modern update on the old yarn that 8:20 (or, more commonly, 8:18) is the time Lincoln died. Actually Abe was shot a little after 10 PM and died at 7:30 AM. In England they say it’s the hour Guy Fawkes had planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Gullibility obviously knows no country.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.