SAILBOAT RACING

Potomac River Sailing Association has races every Sunday through Memorial Day. Racing begins at noon. The marina is off the George Washington Parkway just south of National Airport.

Fleets represented are: Hobie 16, Thistle, Flying Scot, Laser, Albacore, Mobjack, Penguin, Lightning and El Toro. There is a handicap fleet comprising all other classes. For information and schedules, call secretary Dorothy Nowers, 530-5165.

It was the first race of the day, the first race of the year and we were first off at the start.

John Duncan, a sailor of significant years of experience, had put the little 15-foot Albacore over the line just as the horn sounded. He battled toward the windward mark, leading the fleet.

"Great," he said. "My mouth is so dry I can't swallow. I can't keep from getting excited."

We tacked frantically around the mark and made for the next buoy on the threelegged course. We emerged from that in front, too, and set off for Mark 3 across the brown Potomac near the Maryland shore.

Halfway out we determined that our boat, brand new, wasn't keeping pace with the others. Through a series of maneuvers we staved off the closing racers, rounded the mark and headed into the final leg, still leading.

It was still blowing 20, we were locked in a tacking duel, the sky was blue, it felt like spring and nothing could have been better. Then we hit the mud.

Crunch.

"What's going on?" roared Duncan as the fleet swept by.

He grabbed the centerboard, yanked it up and off we went. In fourth place. Which is where we finished.

Every year the racers of the Potomac River Sailing Association go through the same routine. They spend the first few races finding out where the bottom of the river is this year.

"It started after Hurricane Agnes," said club Rear Commodore Matt Krafft, who grew up in Alexandria.

"Every year since then the shoals have gotten a little worse. Five years ago we had races at Hains Point. We could sail straight across. But now the mudflats are so bad right out here in front that we have to sail a mile down the river to get to the channel to sail back up. We don't race at Hains Point any more."

PRSA makes its home at Washington Sailing Marina, a few hundred yards down river from National Airport. That can make for some interesting sailing itself, when the big jets roar over your eight-foot sailing dinghy. But that's another story.

The tale last Sunday, when PRSA opened its season with the annual frostbite regatta, was of high spirits in troubled times.

The association is losing members fast enough to foster worry. Five years ago there were 400 PRSA racers; now there are fewer than 200.

No one knows exactly why, because except for the encroaching mud nothing much has changed.

PRSA still runs its races every weekend, spring and fall. The National Yacht Club fills in with a slightly less competitive series in the summer months.

The boats are still fast, the river is still challenging and getting cleaner every year and the races are still a 15-minute drive from home for most Washingtonians.

The PRSAers still race with the kind of abandon that leaves no room for idle thought while the competition is on.

"You watch out here," Duncan said as we neared the starting line for the second race, "Albacores are a little more competitive than most. You can't tell what these fellows might do."

There followed a scorching sequence of tacks, near-collisions and shouting matches over who had the right of way.

Maybe the sheet sport of it is driving people away.

Krafft thinks there is a trend away from racing among younger sailors. "They seem to be more interested in relaxed cruising."

Which is fine, but any sailor worth his life vest knows you never learn how to sail properly until you've learned to sail fast.

The PRSA, for its part, is willing to teach. Each fleet runs instruction for newcomers. And skippers are always looking for crew. Drop down any Sunday, starting April 1, and watch the show. You might end up on a boat. The PRSA could use the help.