Washington's racing sailors have watched their programs and numbers dwindle in recent years as the Potomac silted in, ruining their sailing grounds; but they now have a hope of revival.

They've all but given up on their traditional territory. Says Dave Pyle, membership chairman of the Lightning Fleet, "It's essential that we find a new place. Hurricane Agnes filled in most of the area of the Potomac we sail.It gets worse every year.

"For a boat the size of a Lightning, it's gotten almost impossible. We sail with one hand on the tiller and one on the centerboard, waiting to run aground."

Lightnings draw five feet with the center board down. Around National Airport, where the Potomac River Sailing Association and the National Capital Yacht Club have traditionally run events, five feet of water is getting harder and harder to find.

The new hope comes from the Virginia State Park Division, which recently acquired almost 500 acres of waterfront property at Leesylvania, near the mouth of the Occoquan Bay.

Representatives of Washington's sailing community have been banging on the door of State Parks Commissioner Ben Bolen, pushing for a small-boat sailing marina at that deep-water spot.

"If we can get it," said Pyle, "we think sailing would take off again." It would probably mean a mass exodus from the Washington Sailing Marina, at least among the serious racing sailors."

From all indications, the prospects look bright.

"We've talked to the sailing people on several occasions," said Bolen, "and Leesylvania seems like the perfect place for it. This [small boat sailing marina] will definitely be in our plan for the park. We think it's a natural for that kind of thing."

It's not going to happen overnight. The state has acquired the land for the park, but any development has to await funds from the state legislature. Bolen wouldn't even guess how long it it would be before a small-boat marina could be operational, but most of the Washington racers said they'd be delighted if it were functioning in five years.

Meantime, they'll plug along off the airport, cursing the vagaries of shifting silt.

The Lightning fleet feels that it's the hardest-hit of all the racing fleets. Back in the late '50s and early '60s, fleet officers said, Washington boasted the largest active Lightning racing fleet in the world, with close to 50 boats. But those days are long gone.

Since Agnes bore down in 1972, leaving its shallow-water trail, Lightning fleet officers have watched with alarm as one after another of their better racers dropped out in favor of a burgeoning program on the Severn River near Annapolis.

"Most of the older boats stayed here," said Mike Arnold, host for the fleet's annual June picnic last weekend, "but almost all the newer, more competitive boats went to Annapolis."

That included folks like Don Delorme, who raced briefly here before moving to the Bay. Delorme has since placed fifth in the world Lightning championships and third twice in the nationals.

Delorme believes that closure of the Washington Sailing Marina "is inevitable now. At least they're working at it the right way, trying to get an alternative. I think the fact that the Potomac fleet has stayed as active as it has, given the conditions, proves that the interest is still there."

"Right now the local Lightning fleet is dying," said Pyle. "Anything bigger than an Albacore [a 15-footer] is just too much hassle to sail around there."

"If we're going to attract sailors of national caliber we have to have a place where they can sail. If we can get it the Leesylvania facility), sailing will just take off."