In the early morning hours of Sept. 28 Anna Nicole Smith, her lawyer and confidant Howard K. Stern and a nanny clutching Smith’s 3-week-old daughter Dannielynn Hope slipped aboard the 41-ft. catamaran Margaritaville and pushed out to sea off the coast of the Bahamas’ Paradise Island.
But this was no ordinary pleasure cruise. Later that day a Baptist minister and some of the couple’s close friends were ferried to a nearby island called Sandy Cay, where they met up with Smith, 38, and Stern, 37, before setting sail again on the catamaran.
At around 3 p.m., Stern, in a black dress suit and white shirt, and Smith, holding a bouquet of red roses, exchanged vows and Bible verses – as well as temporary rings, because the real ones weren’t yet ready.
After the ceremony “we all cheered and Anna wanted to jump into the ocean,” says John James, Smith’s friend and the former Dynasty actor. “But there were sharks out there, so we sped back to (Sandy Cay), and then Anna and Howard jumped in.”
Guests toasted them with champagne and apple cider before digging into some fresh Kentucky Fried Chicken, delivered by boat to the party.
“It was fun and Anna was smiling,” says James. “Howard and Anna were both crying and kissing and holding hands. It was kind of sad and happy at the same time.”
That pretty much sums up the last month of Smith’s life. Just 21 days before the ceremony – which was not legally binding – she gave birth to 6-lb., 9-oz. Dannielynn in the Bahamas. Three days later her son Daniel, 20, died mysteriously in her hospital room.
Then on Sept. 26 Stern revealed on Larry King Live that he is not only Smith’s lover but also Dannielynn’s father – despite claims by Los Angeles photographer Larry Birkhead that he is the father.
So why add to the drama with what was, essentially, a mock wedding with no official marriage license? “They needed a little adrenaline boost because things have been so hectic and devastating in their life recently,” explains Smith’s Nassau attorney Michael Scott.
Not your typical ceremony, perhaps. But since Daniel’s death, says James, “this was the first time I had seen Anna come out of her grief for a moment.”
To see exclusive photos from the ceremony, click here – and for more on this story, check out the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.