In a town like Washington you take your little anarchistic thrills where you can find them.

Like down at Buzzard Point Marina, where what sailboat you can rent, and how much it costs, and when you're supposed to have it back, and how far you can go, all depend on who you ask.

And where the hired help isn't really hired at all, but just there because the big box elder offers wonderful shade in the blasting heat and the piano in the tumble-down shed gets played from time to time, and the music is sweet of a summer's eve.

The unhired hand is Paul Walker, a retired government worker who says he went slightly nuts with boredom when he stopped working 10 years ago, but found redemption in Buzzard Point.

Walker's a little bit of a dreamer. "Sometimes I wish they'd named it something pretty, like Eagle's Nest, but it's been Buzzard Point for years, and I guess that's not all bad."

Actually, Buzzard Point is just about right. The marina sits at the end of First Street SW, jutting out into the muddy Anacostia. To get there you drive through the elegant new Southwest, then through the housing projects of old Southwest, and finally between mammoth warehouses and federal buildings in what has to be one of the least attractive parts of Washington.

The marina holds up its end with its gaggle of brokedown houseboats, sailing yachts that have seen their prime and then some, half-submerged floating docks littered with sticks and trash from the river.

What, then, is Buzzard Point's appeal?

For starters it's a genuine sailing marina.

Last week Bob Westervelt, an inveterate ocean voyager, was battling with piles of lines and shackles and paint pots as he outfitted his 43-foot ketch for a journey to the South Pacific that he'll begin in October, of all months.

And a few slips away Reiner Kramer was putting the polishing touches on his sloop, preparing to leave that afternoon for a cruise to Cape Cod and back.

It's a deepwater port where you can sail right up to the dock, and it's cheap and convient. That makes it a place for real sailors, and those places are hard to find anymore.

Buzzard Point is also the only known place hereabouts that will put you in a cruising yacht for a small fee and send you merrily on your way.

Walker pointed to three sloops on the dock, a 25-foot Annapolis and a pair of 20 foot Ensenadas.

"Fifty dollars a day," he said. "Fifteen extra if you want the motor. A lot of people don't feel safe without the outboard."

How far can we take?

"Well," said Walker, "generally we recommend that you don't go below the Wilson Bridge [six miles downstream], but we're in the rental business. We'd love you to take it to Hong Kong, as long as you bring it back and pay the bill."

If that sounds far out, it's a fair contrast to the other side of the river, where the Washington Sailing Marina will lease you a 12-foot Widgeon for $4.50 an hour as long as you leave a $20 deposit and agree not to leave sight of the dock, which gives you about 200 yards of sailing room.

I'll take Buzzard Point, where there's a nice selection of battered daysailers as well as the cruisers, each with its own byzantine rate structure that seems subject to change depending on who's doing the renting and which way the barometer's heading. A 16-foot Chrysler, for example, goes for $7.50 an hour with a two-hour minimum, and after that $5 an hour. Or something like that. And there's a Hobie cat, and a Sunfish, and a 16-foot Mustang and various other craft that are sometimes there and sometimes not.

If you don't know how to sail at all the Buzzard folks won't rent you a boat. But they will give you an hour lesson for $15, plus the boat rental fee, at the end of which you're on your own, a qualified renter.

"We don't use any books or anything. We just take you out and show you how to do it," said Walker. "It's like riding a bicycle. You won't learn it from a book."