Phil Nowers has one simple piece of advice about sailboat racing on the Potomac River. "Don't quit. You're almost always gonna beat somebody."

Nowers, a relative newcomer who spends a lot of time looking at the transoms of other boats in weekend races on the river, is often amazed at the finish line to find he has slipped past boats that were way ahead of him halfway through the race.

"Even if you're dead last, somebody out there is going to fail to finish, so you at least beat him," said the cheerful Nowers last weekend during the National Yacht Club's season-ending Walter Collier Regatta off Hains Point.

But sometimes even Nowers loses the faith.

Especially when he finds himself going backwards, which happens a lot on the river.

There was a good crowd of boats on hand last weekend and there will be a better one this Saturday and Sunday when the Potomac River Sailing Association kicks off its fall season with the 45th annual President's Regatta, traditional high point of the Washington sailboat racing season.

Nowers races in a 15-foot Albacore, which is probably the most competitive fleet hereabouts.

And he was in the thick of it when the Albacores approached the starting line off Hains Point on Sunday.

"This is where it gets hairy," he said, dodging streaking sailboats in the crush around the committee boat. He was doing about five things at once-driving the boat, trying to read the course directions off placards on the committee boat and match them up with a map he had scrunched up in his pocket, reading the wind by watching the smoke from his White Owl, keeping track of seconds before the starting gun and telling his novice crew what to do next.

"Bang!" went the gun.

"Uh-oh," said the skipper. As if by fiendish design the breeze, which had been sparklingly autumnal, ceased and desisted. The boats, lined up 15 feet from the start, were caught in the current from Hurricane David's runoff and began drifting downriver, away from the line.

Tiny Lasers, the next fleet due off five minutes later, began circling like buzzards, drawing nearer the dying Albacores. The bigger boats were still sloshing along behind the start when the Lasers strode through at the gun.

"Frustrating," Nowers groused. "Why do some boats go when others don't?" That's the racing sailor's eternal enigma.

At last the breeze resumed and Nowers started picking his way towards the first mark near Memorial Bridge.

He was in the pack, but by the time he reached the windward mark only one Albacore lay astern. He rounded the buoy and set off for the next one, and before long he watched helplessly as the only boat he was leading swept by. By the second mark he was dead last. Then he hit the plastic marker buoy.

"Cripes," said the skipper, or words to that effect. "You know what that means? We have to go around it again." He looked at the current sweeping downstream and the meager wind. "It could take an hour."

Then, flying in the face of the wisdom he had espoused only moments before, he gave up. "Let's pack it in."

But the crew said no.

They made good the error, re-rounded the buoy and lit off after the fleet, which was rapidly disappearing downriver.

And what do you think happened?

Three Albacores smashed into each other at the third buoy and Nowers' boat swept wide around them in the confusion. Two more boats got caught in some dead water trying a shortcut at the mouth of the Anacostia. Nowers slithered past them.

And when he crossed the finish, five Albacores were still struggling along behind.

Which proves a point.

Always listen to the skipper.

Sometimes. :WE GOTTA REGATTA

As many as 150 boats are expected for the President's Regatta Saturday and Sunday. The races are the Potomac River Sailing Association's annual effort on behalf of the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Racing Association, and boats from around the bay are likely to show. It's open entry: Anyone with a racing class boat can compete for a $5 fee.

Two races are slated for Saturday at 11, and one for Sunday at 11. Registration for racers is Friday, 6 to 9 p.m. and Saturday, 8 to 9:30 a.m. at the Sailing Marina.

Smaller boats will race off PRSA'S headquarters at Washington Sailing Marina, just south of National Airport. Larger class boats will have a separate course off Hains Point. Viewing and picnicing should be good from both Hains Point and the marina grounds.