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'We call it a 'screens'l,' which is a contraction of 'screen' and 'sail.' It's kind of tongue in cheek because in the sailing world, things are slurred," says Pete Sharp, a member of the sail and maintenance crew for the San Diego Maritime Museum. "The actual [sail] we use is specific and exclusive for projecting movies and is hung up in the rig just alongside the main'st, or main mast." Sharp is also the co-projectionist for the program Movies Before the Mast.According to the Maritime Museum's marketing director, Michael Shanahan, "We show nautically themed movies on the deck of the Star of India, which is a great location for [these films] because there is an ambiance to the venue that is unmatched -- you're right on the bay with the city lights behind you."

The Star of India, which first took to the ocean in 1863 under the name Euterpe (after the Greek goddess of music), is not only the world's oldest ship still able to sail, it is San Diego's only floating movie theater. Two weekends remain before the season for Movies Before the Mast ends for the 13th time.

Friday nights are referred to as date nights, and Saturdays are family nights. Children are not allowed to attend on Fridays, alhough no one will castigate you for going alone or bringing friends instead of a lover.

On August 5 and August 12 date-night attendees will see the 1951 classic Captain Horatio Hornblower, starring Gregory Peck. Prior to the movie, daters can participate in a scavenger hunt and can tour the HMS Surprise, the ship made famous by the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Master and Commander was the date-night flick in July.

On Saturday, family night, kids can watch the 2003 version of Peter Pan, after a scavenger hunt of their own. "Typically we play boat races, but we're doing the surprise scavenger hunt because there's a theme to the movies this year," says Shanahan.

Seating is first come, first served -- the Star of India's capacity is 200 people. Brienne Ashley, a volunteer for Movies Before the Mast, compares the event to "old drive-ins. They don't really have very many of those anymore...just like the drive-ins, they show a little cartoon beforehand. The last one was Popeye. "

Ashley volunteered to help out on the nights Peter Pan is screened because she is excited to see the film. She says she will most likely be staffing the popcorn machine. The background noise inherent with outdoor movies is no bother for Ashley. "Sometimes you'll hear some noises -- the boat is right next to Embarcadero and [occasionally] airplanes will fly by -- but once you get into the movie, it's not as noticeable."

"This is not the multiplex theater with seating," says Shanahan. "People come here for the environment." Cushioned folding chairs are provided for all, and patrons should dress warmly and bring additional blankets or sleeping bags.

"The screen is translucent. We project from one side of it; if you're on the opposite side from the projector, you can see just as clearly, but the image is reversed," says Sharp. "We joke about turning the ship around during intermission." Rather than turning the ship, the projector is programmed to project a reversed image. "We do this in a sense of fairness, especially if there's writing in the movie, so that [for at least one half of the film] the people on the opposite side get to see it corrected."

Sharp, a technician by trade, enjoys the chance to stretch his sea legs. "When the Star sails, we're part of the crew that takes her out, so we're trained as tall-ship sailors. Last year, I forget the particular snafu, but we had a problem and Michael made some crack to our guests, 'They're not technicians, folks, they're sailors.'"

No food is allowed on board, but light refreshments, like popcorn for a dollar, candy, and clam chowder from Anthony's, are sold. No alcoholic beverages are sold on family night. -- Barbarella

Movies Before the Mast aboard the Star of India Friday, August 5, and Saturday, August 6, 7 p.m. Maritime Museum of San Diego 1492 North Harbor Drive Downtown Cost: $12 adult; $7 children (Saturdays only) Info: 619-234-9153, x101 or www.sdmaritime.org

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