Cunard Lines Considers Reflag Of Its Ships, But Not For The Reasons You Think…

John Konrad
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September 26, 2011

Unlike most domestic flags, the British-owned and British-flagged fleet of ships has grown since 2000 when the government replaced corporate tax, one that taxed ship owners according to the size and displacement of their ships. Despite this good news, the Britain’s Red Ensign may be absent from some of Britain’s most famous lines. Cunard Lines announced their intentions last week to reflag their vessels from the UK to Bermuda. The decision has nothing to do with taxes however, it’s apparently all about weddings.

One of the most persistant myths in the maritime world is that Captain’s have the legal right to marry people aboard any ship in which they command. The truth is not as clear. Some countries do give the Captain this privilege, but most do not. In some countries, Captains are strictly prevented from performing such rights. The US Navy and the British Merchant Marine, for example, explicitly forbid captains to perform weddings. The following is directly quoted from the US Code of Federal Regulations:

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 the laws of the state, territory, or district in which the parties are domiciled, and
(b) In the presence of a diplomatic or consular official of the United States, who has consented to issue the certificates and make the returns required by the consular regulations.

In the US (a) of the CFR provides a loophole in which many US-flagged cruise ship operators jump through. The fact is, most states allow anyone off the street to perform a wedding as long as they register as a public notary. And this is why most cruise ship weddings in the states are performed while the vessel is docked in state waters.

Most large cruise ships are not US-flagged and weddings are performed at sea under the legal authority of their flag state, which is why Cunard Lines is considering the move. Weddings are big business for the Cruise industry and the UK’s strict laws, which state that weddings must be performed in a publicly accessibly place under English law – ruling out ceremonies at sea, are affecting Cunard’s bottom line.

While Cunard’s President, Peter Shanks, has confirmed that no decision has been made, he does see three options for the future of his ships. In an interview with the Financial Times Shanks said “One is to stay as we are and forego our share of this lucrative business; a second is to designate a wedding ship and change that ship’s registry alone; and the third is to maximise the opportunity and re-register all our ships.”

Flag of Bermuda Red Ensign
The Bermuda Red Ensign

But others don’t seem convinced that Cunard is leaving the British flag or that marriage would be the driving reason behind a move. One cruise line expert gCaptain talked to said, “Cunard has been operating under the British flag since 1840 and is the pride of the country. Any consideration to switch flags is likely driven by new European regulations which require Cunard to pay all EU citizens (like Polish or Romanian officers) British wages.”

The country most likely to get the new ships? According to the Cunard, Bermuda is the top candidate because it lies outside of the EU, allows captains to perform marriages at sea, and because Bermuda-registered ships to fly the Bermuda Red Ensign.

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