The sun was setting orange over row after row of sailboats and powerboats. The water was slick calm, the way it often gets at dusk. The tinkle of glasses and chatter filled the barge saloon, which sometimes rocks with the chop at the pier.

A tiny dinghy made its way through the docks alongside the saloon. A man in white ducks tended the little outboard and a woman in a Lacoste shirt sat in the bow, a sweater pulled close around her shoulders.

Seattle? Bimini? Charleston? Marblehead?

How about Washington, D.C.?

No matter how hard people try to ignore it, Washington has a waterfront. Like most waterfronts it reflects the city it serves. No rotting crab sheds or sagging brick warehouses for the Nation's Capital, of course. Her waterfront is bi-level concrete.

"You want to see how crazy it is?" asked Ray Wild, who is heading the Washington Waterfront Association's drive to awaken the city to its docks with a two-week tall ships Harborfest. "You're walking on National Park Service land now. We go down one level and you're on city land owned by the Redevelopment Land Authority. And behind the restaurants it's private land. Three jurisdictions in 50 feet."

Typical Washington.

Wild is hoping what happens during the first two weeks of May will be typically un-Washington -- a plain old neighborhood block party highlighted by the arrival first of the Christian Radich, Norway's square-rigged training vessel, and then by the Danmark, Denmark's tall ship.

"I don't think anyone knew during the Bicentenial that Washington could accommodate tall ships," said Wild. "If they had, don't you think the flag vessels of all these nations would have been delighted to visit the capital of the United States?"

It turns out that Washington can indeed host a mightly sailing vessel, though not by much.

The shoal of silt and sand what exists where the Anacostia and the Potomac meet at Hains Point left about 15 feet of water at that spot last week. The Denmark and Radich both draw about 15 feet. So the Army Corps of Engineers got to work and dug out three feet of breathing space, which Corps officials say was needed anyway.

By about 8:40 a.m. on May 1 the three-masted Radich will have her way up the Chesapeake from Norfolk and up the Potomac from Point Lookout to Mount Vernon, where she will be greeted by escort vessels and a spouting fireboat.

At 9:10 that morning she will receive a 21-gun salute from Fort Washington; at 9:30 the draw at the Wilson Bridge will open to let her through, and by 10:20 or so, helped along by a rising tide, she should make her way to the ship pier at Sixth and Water Streets SW where she'll sit for five days, the first big sailing ship to visit Washington proper in memory. At the pier she'll received a musket salute, bands will play, flags will be hoisted and Harborfest '80 will be underway.

The Radich will be open to visitors on the weekend, May 3 and 4, and in each of three waterfronts parks in a two-block span there will be day-long entertainment by music and dancing groups. The Radich departs for New York May 6. Then the whole program gets repeated when the Danmark reaches Mount Vernon about 2 p.m. on Friday, May 9. She will lie at the Walter Street pier from about 3:45 p.m. that duty until she leaves after that weekend's festivities.

Wild thinks the biggest reason the Washington waterfront hasn't captured the fancy of the city (you hardly ever see a stroller there) is that it isn't seedy enough. It's a little clean and precise.

There's not much that can be done about that now that $30 million has been spent to make it that way. But Wild put together a list of entertainers that should take the harsh edge off for the two weekends, anyway.

Bands and groups performing at the three parks, romantically named Park 2, Park 3 and Park 4, include the Sea Chanters, Dottie Dodgers Jazz Quartet, Rosebud Ragtime Ensemble, Joe Capaldi ("Who is Joe Capaldi?" Wild shouted at his secretary); Flagthrowers of Alcatraz; the Flying Nesbits and the Flagman of Sanspolcro.

All free, of course.