In the old days they called it paying off with the boom.

"This is documented," said Bill Sanger, who runs a sailboat-for-charter business out of Whitehall Creek near Annapolis.

The skipjacks that sailed out of Baltimore were always looking for oystering crews, Sanger explained. "The skipper would round up a bunch of vagabonds and drunks and set to sea. Then when the hold was full of oysters he'd set sail for home, call the crew together and throw a big party on deck, with all the run they could drink."

Inevitably the crew wound up roaring drunk and when enough of them were stationed properly amidships, singing and fighting, the captain grew curiously negligent. The boat fell off course and the boat "accidentally" jibed, the huge wooden boom sweeping across the cabin top and removing a few sailors. With them, of course, went their shares of the take at the dock.

Those days presumably are over. But heads are no harder than they were 50 years ago and huge wooden booms still have a way of swinging wildly across cabin tops when you're sailing downwind.

Example: Last week five Washingtonians gathered for a 24-hour Bay voyage aboard the sailboat. Capt. George Oram charters out of Annapolis city dock.

Oram's yacht is a 78-foot Chesapeake Bay bugeye ketch. It's a startlingly lovely vessel that a Missippi romantic had built 18 years ago, following the lines of the oystering and freight boats that plied the Chesapeake even before the skipjacks.

Oram bought it a couple of years ago and fixed it up. His idea was to make a living from it when he retired from his job at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. He has just started living that dream.

Last weekend marked Oram's first overnight voyage for hire. He was taking Ruth Inkpen and four of her friends on a sail up the Magothy River and then over to Rock Hall for the night.

Somewhere between Gibson Island and Gratitude Harbor he found himself on a dead downwind course. Oram decided the pace was too slow, so he rigged a blooper sail to gather more wind. The blooper had never been used before and it wasn't filling properly. Oram went forward to see what he could do.

"Fall off," he shouted astern to Inkpen, the untested sailor he'd put at the wheel. She dutifully steered off the wind.

"Fall off," he shouted again, and she inched the wheel farther to the right. Her fellow charterers noticed that the main boom was teetering tentatively, as if to say it wanted to jibe. Oram couldn't see it from where he was.

"Fall off," shouted the captain.

"Better not," said one of Inkpen's friends, eyeing the form of Susan papenfuss, who was draped across the cabin top sleeping off an all-night stint at her CIA job.

Inkpen didn't. She swung the wheel back slightly to the left. The boom feel reassuringly back to its proper place.

Oram finally gave up and let the blooper flap in the breeze. It was a small incident that the charterers laughed off, but it wasn't the only accident jibe of the day. Twice ot actually happened, but the wind was mild and everyone was sharp-eyed and out of the way.

Sanger, a retired Navy officer who teaches sailing and seamanship for the Red Cross in Washington, was a little shocked: "You mean he didn't have a preventer?" A preventer keeps the boom from swinging through on a jibe.

Oram didn't have one, and there were other small things that were less than perfect for this shakedown cruise. A cheek block locked a wheel, so trimming one sail was an exercise in futility. The storm jib was ragged and full of holes, so if a storm ever came up it would blow out and be useless. The dinghy motor had been lost a week before so Oram left the tender behind, which was no big deal except that it meant no one could go ashore except if they swam.

These small matters, combined, presented a problem. Not enough to dampen the charterers' pleasant celebration of their friend Nancy Sullivan's 30th birthday, but enough to lead to the conclusion that a party renting someone else's boat and services should keep an eye on how things are run.

Oram has passed tough examinations to earn and maintain his Coast Guard license to carry passengers for hire. His boat has been inspected and approved. But things do break, things decay and people occasionally get careless.

Oram knows how to sail. He said he normally rigs a jibe preventer when the wind's up and he's got a long downwind haul ahead. Of the accidental jibes last weekend he said, "That was my fault for letting them take the helm." He also said the dinghy motor is being fixed and he seemed fully aware of the boat's other shortcomings, taking reasonable precautions to make sure nothing space busted loose.

But open water is never a good place to be ill-prepared or careless. The sea, as the skipjack oystermen found out, careth not for any man.