"Other errors are more consequential, like not making sure the snap shackle attached to the main halyard is secure. Result . . . the beginner thinks he is winching up the main but discovers to his chagrin that he has merely raise the shackle . . ."

My friend gave up on page one of "Rigging Made Easy," the first chapter of "Good Sailing." Had we somehow wandered into the advanced class? "I'm confused already," he said.

It was 9 a.m. on a brisk - make that downright chilly - Saturday in late October. We had decided to devote the weekend to learning to sail, and had signed up for the Annapolis Sailing School's weekend crash course in elementary sailing. Fourteen others had had the same idea.

"By Sunday afternoon you'll all be sailors," instructor Gordon Lilly promised confidently. Sixteen faces greeted him with varying degrees of skepticism and Saturday morning sleepiness. With that Lilly divided the group into units of four, carefully insuring that no two people came togehter would sail together.

"You'd be surprised how many marriages we save this way," Lilly offered cherrily as one of many attempts at humor.

Though billed as an introductory program, the course attracted a group of widely divergent knowledge of sailing. Several people, for example, actually owned boats or were considering buying, while others didn't know sheets from lines, much less port from starboard. And there were the sailing groupies: those who look model-perfect in crisp whites and spout nautical vernacular as convincingly as the Ancient Mariner himself, but, entrusted with the helm, head straight for the nearest shoal.

To the credit of the school, the weekend program smoothly encompassed this range. Lectures in the school's headquarters in an old Annapolis residence were neatly structured to cover the essentials of sailing, from Parts of the Boat to the critical issue of Man Overboard. The art of sailing was covered in theory and in diagram, with frequent digressions for Gordon Lilly's seaborne war stories.

Senior instructor Lilly, 51, brought with him years of crewing experience in points as far-flung as his native Great Britain and with the sun-roughened skin of one who has spent many seasons at sea, Lilly seemed to have one stock piece of advice for virtually any sailing crisis: "Go below and have a beer."

We soon learned that it's one thing to listen to someone talk about sailing, and quite another to try it yourself. Alternating with the lectures were 2 1/2-hour practice sessions in the school's fleet of 22-foot Rainbow class sloops (guaranteed, we were assured, to be unsinkable). In short order we were assembled in our groups of four, an instructor assigned to each boat, rigging the sails we had seen illustrated on the blackboard.

Sure enough, principle turned into practice as we took turns tacking across the harbor. There was the uncomfortable moment when the first helmsperson prepared his crew for his first change of tack. "Helm's alle?" The ritual command came out instead as a question. But soon we were barking the command assertively, and jibing and coming with near-veteran aplomb . . .

"Who has the right of way now?" the instructor asked as a larger sailboat approached our path. Not to worry, we chimed back, recalling the class session on Rules of the Road. The larger boat clearly would yield to our starboard tack. Yield we did, averting a head-on by inches. (The offending other boat apparently had missed the session on rules of the road.) By the afternoon class session we had achieved legendary status as the boat that almost had the collision. We basked smugly in the knowledge that we had dealt valiantly with near-disaster.

True to promise, our skill and confidence increased logarithmically with each session on the water. We glided skillfully in and out of port. We tacked artfully. We rescued out Man Overboard (a rubber buoy) with swift regard for his plight. We deciphered our charts with the quiet determination of Egyptologists at work in the pyramids. We were even graceful when we ran aground.

So naturally we looked forward eagerly to the famous Sunday-afternoon open sail. This, after all, was when we could sail with whoever we wanted to - spouses with spouses, even - and, within reasons, wherever we wanted.

"By Sunday afternoon you'll be sailors," Gordon Lilly had predicted.

But who could foresee that Sunday morning's healthy winds would vanish? Totally. Who could envision how silly we'd feel as we paddled our boats out in what should have been our moment of tacking glory? As we bobbed impotently with all the grandeur of Three Men in a Tub? As our telltales - the all-important wind indicators - hung limply along the lines?

Brave sailors that we'd become, we accepted defeat. Salty seapeople that we'd become, we applied the Gordon Lilly distress principle: We went below - or in this case, back to the Annapolis Sailing School - and had a beer.