big wedding

Jeff George, of Egg Harbor Township, a sea captain, has the authority to do weddings. On Valentine's Day, he will be doing his biggest wedding ever as Atlantic City hosts its annual mass wedding. He's replacing the normal mass wedding minister, Jean Muchanic, of Absecon, who will be out of the country.

Edward Lea

In more than 10 years as an ordained minister, Jeff George figures he has married about 175 couples.

But George expects to legally marry — or do civil-union ceremonies or vow renewals — for almost that many couples in just one afternoon this week.

That afternoon will be Valentine’s Day, when George — an Atlantic City tour-boat captain in his day job — will be the official minister at the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority’s sixth annual mass wedding at Boardwalk Hall.

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As of Sunday, the ACCVA had requests from 162 couples who want to be part of that giant wedding party. And each freshly united — or reunited — couple is allowed to bring a few guests, so an ACCVA official expects 500 or more people to be in the Adrian Phillips Ballroom at 2 p.m. Thursday, when George does his thing.

Karen Martin said this year is another new record for the mass wedding, which started in 2008 with about 60 couples. She added that Thursday’s participants have registered from as far away as Florida, West Virginia and New Hampshire.

Jean Muchanic has seen that growth up close. Muchanic, the executive director of Absecon Lighthouse, was the official minister for the first five group weddings.

“Last year, I know there were about 100 weddings, civil unions or renewals, and that was the biggest one,” says Muchanic, who adds that the group wedding is “one of my favorite events of the year. There’s nothing like a room full of hundreds of people celebrating love together.”

But Muchanic plans to be out of the country on Valentine’s Day, so the ACCVA turned to George, who lives in Egg Harbor Township and runs Atlantic City Cruises, a popular tour boat based at Historic Gardners Basin. George said he has never had more than 200 people in his audience for a wedding — and never married more than one couple at a shot. Still, he has experience working big rooms.

He can narrate tours for 130 or so people at a time on his boat, the Cruisin1. And he’s a former grade school teacher who still teaches part-time at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

“Crowds don’t scare me,” George said.

He got the authority to do weddings in a very new-fashioned way — he went online, to the website of the Universal Life Church. After filling out a simple form, he became an ordained minister of that non-denominational church.

He emphasizes that his marrying credentials have nothing to do with his position as a licensed boat captain — that’s a popular myth, but it’s still a myth that captains can do weddings.

He became a minister when his friend and former tour-boat worker, Mike Trzaska, of New Providence, Pa., wanted George to officiate at Trzaska’s 2003 wedding.

“My wife (Kelly) and I are are not religious, and we were looking for an alternative to a minister,” said Trzaska, a Stockton graduate who worked through college on George’s boat, and met his wife in Atlantic City. “So we asked Jeff to do it as a friend, and he said yes. Then we said he should consider advertising weddings on the boat. ... He had people every week asking if he performed weddings, and he he was turning all these people down.”

But Mike and Kelly had their wedding on dry land, in Cape May Court House.

“My wife gets seasick,” the groom said. “So that wouldn’t have been ideal.”

Still, George has done plenty of weddings on his boat, always in the bay and not the ocean, to avoid sea-sickness as much as possible. One of his favorite memories is of a very small 2005 wedding that was highlighted by a triple rainbow popping out in the sky as Peter and Eleanor Lapensee, of Prescott, Ontario, were taking their vows.

“Atlantic City has been our little getaway ever since we started dating,” Eleanor said Sunday, adding that it’s about a seven-hour trip from their home, across the St. Lawrence River from New York State.

“We were looking online for an officiant ... and we had been on Jeff’s boat before and had talked to him somewhat,”she said. “I found out he did weddings and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ He did an excellent job.”

As he plans his Thursday ceremony, George said one of his biggest challenges has been trying to find the words that will work equally well for a wedding, a civil union or a vow renewal. Another, he knows from years of experience, is that too many couples tend to focus their eyes on the minister as they’re having their own big moment.

“I don’t want them looking at me,” he said. “I want them looking at each other.”

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