CUTTING its wandering swath to the sea, the Potomac ripples past the Three Sisters -- those rocks that almost gave their name to a bridge -- then widens to a suitable grandeur as it approaches Georgetown.

On the shore -- the left bank as you head downstream -- a funky, dead-end, orphan of a street called, appropriately, Water Street dribbles a few blocks and ends, as ingloriously as it begins. But other roads -- even other Water Streets -- and paths and sidewalks and railroad tracks travel on, making it possible to take a waterfront walk from Georgetown to Anacostia.

Behind the closed doors of the Potomac Boat Club at Water Street Nw ("Founded in 1869, Members Only"), Charlie Butt, who has coached generations of Washingtonians to victory in racing sculls, shows a visitor the boats, oars and shoes stacked neatly on racks.

Upstairs, in the dark-stained wood ballroom lined with mooseheads and old photographs of winning crews. Halloween dances and crab feasts on Analostan -- now Roosevelt -- Island, sit still more boats. But not for long.

"At least I certainly hope they'll take them out for the wedding reception," says a harried-looking woman standing on a ladder and dusting the lightbulbs in the cahndelier -- part of a major cleanup in preparation for her daughter's wedding reception.

Up still more stairs, next to the tiny balcony where elders and officials can sit to watch the dancing, is a door that leads to what's left of the old Aqueduct Bridge, which once carried water from the C&O Canal and trolley cars to Virginia.

From the bridge you can see the club's neighbors: three brick townhouses with stairways leading to the river.

"If the Three Sisters Bridge had been built, I guess those houses would have been torn down, and us, too," says Frank Baxter, son of the Jack who built Jack's boats, on the oter side of the townhouses. "Now I guess everything above Key Bridge is safe."

Large power boats, some with holes in their hulls, rest on blocks. Canoes rent for $10 a day. A melange of chairs sits around a barbecue grill. "Almost every day we're cooking something there,' says Baxter. "There's no shortage of fuel. We just drag wood up from the river. The Water? To me it's never been dirty. I learned to swim here."

Pigeons rest under Key Bridge and cars swish overhead. At 33rd Street, Water Street becomes K Street, and sculls and canoes and barbecues give way to the delinquent cars of a D.C. impoundment lot. Tow trucks drive through the gate continually, dragging new recruits. Overhead, the Whitehurst Freeway stands on stanchions covered with poison ivy and intertwined by junk ailanthus threes. Jackhammers -- the sound of the redevelopment north of K Street -- punctuate the traffic's drone. The impoundment lot gives way in turn to a commercial parking lot where there's no forbidding fence to keep you from the water's edge. The concrete bulkhead is bordered by overgrown weeds and small trees with an undergrowth of trash. A scull skims along the river against the dark green backdrop of Rooselvelt Island. The Dodge Center climbs in steps above the freeway like a ziggurat.

At the Washington Boat Line's Georgetown dock, sightseers -- an Indian woman in a sari, a 'chinese woman in jeans, a little girl and her mother eating cartons of yogurt -- wait on a float for the next boat. Planes fly toward National Airport, while

The Spirit of '76 , a glass-enclosed vessel like those on the canals of Amsterdam, glides in and a deckhand deftly ties it up and helps the tourists aboard.

Just downstream is the domain of the garbage trucks, empty but still smelly, and mountains of sand in the Department of Environmental Services' lot. There's much more sand next door, at the Super-Concrete Corporation ("Since 1928"), and trucks are moving it all around the lot and dumping it into mixers that mix it into concrete. The noise of grinding rock can sometimes be heard next door, in the otherwise serene Kathleen Ewing Gallery on the second floor of 3020 K Street.

"We're the only functioning open-to-the-public building on the waterfront at K Street," says Ewing with pride. "We specialize in the contemporary photography and young artists. This is part of the area that will be redeveloped, and when that happens I guess we'll be out. We're on a month-to-month lease."

Where K Street ends in a tangle of underpasses, a workman sits at a picnic table under the freeway, eating fruit salad from a jar. Railroad tracks, which had been following K Street, turn toward the water's edge, past huge piles of lumber and lines of freight cars to where a crane lifts sand out of a barge and into a Super-Concrete truck. A path leads from the industrial waterfront back to the recreational waterfront -- to the clipped green lawn of the Harry T. Thompson Boat Center where canoes rent by the day or the hour. The boathouse is solidly built of brick and very large, with an under deck for picnics.

Two boys, with yarmulkes and fishing poles, troop across the lawn and cross a narrow makeshift footbridge to an island, a wedge-shaped wooded isle at the confluence of the Potomac and Rock Creek. Propped against a tree, shrouded by bushes, stands a huge raft. Are the boys Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn? No, they ignore the raft and head for the small sandy beach dotted with bear cans and put out their lines. On the other side of the tiny isle, a mother duck leads her brood out of the woods and into Rock Creek.

If you're not a duck, you can cross Rock Creek by doubling back through the Thompson Boat Center and following the sidewalk.

On your left looms the Watergate complex, like a school of beached whales whose baleen has been grotesquely recycled into balconies. A woman who looks as if she lives at the Watergate walks a dog on the sidewalk across the road. Fish jump. Birds peck at scrans along the concrete bulkhead. A man sleeps under a tree, clutching a camera case; another wears a painter's hat and pillows his head on old newspapers. An elderly jogger puffs by the empty benches in front of the Kennedy Center. The roar of the traffic echoes under the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, but as you emerge there is a shady grove of Japanese pine, holly and elm trees, The tour boat glides by, followed by a motorboat with two men in orange life jackets. A Navy helicopter flies low over the river, like a giant dragonfly.

White marble steps, widening as they approach the water, from the Cermonial Watergate, now unused since state visitors hardly ever arrive by boat. Weeds poke out between the steps and waves lap against the marble, then skitter along it until they're spent. One could picture Othello disembarking victorious in Venice -- except for the traffic and the deafening roar of the airplanes. Noise has even put a stop to what was, since 1935, a Washington institution, the Watergate concerts. Twice a week, the National Symphony played on a barge anchored on a pylon that still sits on the bottom of the steps, where the audience sat. Movie freaks will recognize this as the place where Sophia Loren had a momentous chance meeting with Cary Grant's son in "Houseboat."

Next to the unused watergate, whose very name has been usurped by a building and a scandal, traffic flows steadily over Memorial Bridge, flanked by gilt horses. Although one of the horses is entitled Valor, the best way to cross the four lanes of traffic is to go to the Lincoln Memorial, cross the road by the light and then work your way back to the waterfront. Here the shoreline becomes pleasantly unkempt, with dandelions, weeds, day lillies, even Indian strawberries, -- tasteless ancestors of today's luscious beauties. Butterflies flit from one blue flower to another, and a lone mallard takes a short flight.

Just past the circle containing the statue of John Ericsson, inventor of the screw propeller, a tour guide in a yachting cap flags down cars with out-of-state plates.

"Good morning, would you like to take a sightseeing tour . . ." he proffers.

Some tourists stop to talk it over. Others step on the gas as soon as they're sure he's not a cop.

West Potomac Park, which starts at the Ericsson statue, is not only a parking lot for tourist but a peaceful place to fish. A breeze ripples the trees along the bank and a couple sits under a willow getting their lines ready, not caring that a parade of dead fish is heading toward the 14th Street Bridge.

A gravel path hugs the waterline, favorite fishing spots markered by rusted-out hibachis and abandoned caps. There is a pebble beach of sorts, half hidden by purple thistles. A jogger slows to a walk on the path that follows the road. A rock marks the spot where "world's first continuous-service public air mail plane" took off on May 15, 1918, carrying 150 pounds of mail to Philadelphia and New York. More fishermen unload gear from a station wagon. A man wearing a hat does kneebends on the grass. Eight fishermen, some in directors' chairs, line the bank near the gate to the tidal basin.

"Is this the best place to fish?" one answers to a query. "There are fish all up and down the river. You know how it is, somebody sees you fishing and they pull up . . . I caught a carp and my friend caught a catfish. Carp is good baked, fried or smoked."

"Isn't that what they make gefilte fish out of?" asks his friend.

The captain of an Army Corps of Engineers boat waves to the fisherman, then keeps cruising, looking for floating debris to scoop out of the water.

A bridge arches over the tidal basin gate and a sign points toward Hains Point. A sidewald lined by holly trees follows the river, leading under the four spans, including one for trains and one for furture Metrorail cars, that make up the 14th street Bridge. Under one span, a man fishes in the shade, sitting in a folding chair. Under another span, someone has pulled a picnic table. Past the bridge, the river grows wider and takes on the look of a river that's going to sea. The shore becomes East Potomac Park, and its grassy banks are filled with couples sitting under trees, sunbathers listlessly perusing papers, and more fishermen. An off-duty cab driver unloads his gear and his lunch, which includes ice cream. A Vietnamese says he doesn't cook fish he catches.

"Just enjoy . . . release," he says, throwing an imaginary fish back into the water with gestering hands.

Picnickers watch the continuous show across the river at National Airport where lights signal to planes that land and take off one after another.Red-and-black channel markers bob in the river, and signs along the bank warn that "this water is a health hazard."

At the playground just short of the point, kids from daycare centers wear identifying tags and senior citizens on picnic wear "Senior Power" buttons. But land's end itself is deserted, save for a lone seagull.

Beyond the popular-lined point the Potomac widens as it heads for the Chesapeake and so to sea. The Eastern Branch -- or the Anacostia River -- joins the main river here and the Washington Channel leads boats to the southwest waterfront. To follow the water on land, you have to follow the Washington Channel back through the park.

Kids play around the enormous scupltured foot on display in the park and a mother snaps a picture of two little girls in front of an arm. A police boat glides up the channel and a jogger runs under the sprinklers set out on the park lawn. At the lightship Chesapeake , also runs by the Park Service, Ranger Sally Griffin leads a family through the retired floating lighthouse. "This boat used to help others find their way. That's why it's painted bright red . . ."

At the head of the channel, you have to walk past the Park Service headquarters, under a bridge, over the gate that leads to the tidal basin and follow the sidewalk to Maine Avenue and the Washington Marina.

Morning glories cling to the chain link fence that guards the sailing sloops, motor yachts and houseboats. In the busy store, prospective buyers look over designs of yachts and shoppers pay for marine hardware. In the second-floor office, Bob Strickell, one of two brothers who have owned the marina for the past 29 years, looks out at the boats and at the surrounding freeway bridges.

"Originally the road was supposed to come straight through this building," he remembers. "I guess people thought it would be a shame to tear down this marina, but we lost half of it anyway. We used to do a lot of painting here. But now, with the airport and the express highway, boats end up looking worse than before we painted them. No, I don't sail myself. After you get through with working with boats all week, it's nice to have a change on the weekend."

Under the Southwest freeway bridge is the parking lot for the Maine Avenue fish market, whose smell gets to you before you get to it. The market has a carnival air, with bright unbrellas over the fishboats and hawkers acting like barkers. At Pruitt's Seafood, Dave Hickman is telling a customer that "We caught at least 60 percent of this ourselves." Bart Parks, a waterman who sells to Pruitt's, is grousing in an aside that "It's a poor living -- if you don't beleive it come around when he pays me."

There is conch and squid, mussels and shrimp, crab and crappie. At Captain White's a French-speaking couple from Cameroon buy a 17-pound bluefish -- "fresh from the ocean" -- and put it in their cooler. After lots of explaining and gesturing, they learn that they have to take their purchase to the Virgo Fish House, which has exclusive fish-cleaning rights on the waterfront -- "Open 365 days a year, 20 cents a pound, no heads cleaned on catfish."

Inside, fish hang from the ceiling and workers scale them with what looks like electric razors. Then the scaled fish go to counters for filleting or just cleaning.

Next to the fish boat and the work boats bob the yachts of the Capitol Yacht Club at 1000 Water Street SW.

"We've been here -- maybe a few feet over that way -- since 1892," explains a club official. "When they tore down the old club we were in the trailer for five years. Then when Metro went underwater, they tore up our docks. We're supposed to be getting new docks, but meanwhile we're using some of the docks at the Gangplank."

Beyond the yacht, the waterfront is a sidewalk, with beige-brick, look-alike restaurants on one side and a sea of yachts -- behind locked gates -- on the other. People in bathing suits stroll the piers, carrying copies of Sail magazine. A woman in a bikini waters a Norfolk Island pine on the deck of a houseboat. From the sauve Qui Peut , an old motor yacht in need of repair, come the sounds of hammering and scraping. There are also beautiful old ChrisCrafts with mahogany decks, even a skipjack. Anchored outside the Gangplank, a restaurant that's made of wood and actually looks like it belongs on the waterfront, are two hugh trimarans.

At the old Wilson Line -- now Washington Boat Line -- pier with its brick boathouse, the boat for Mount Vernon has already left. Next door, on the police and fire pier, things are also quiet, Pilot J.C. Fleming, sits in a chair in the fire station with his feet up on the table, smoking a cigar and sipping an orange drink.

"We don't have too many fires," he says. "The last one was on a boat under the Wilson Bridge about two weeks ago. Maybe boat-owners are more fire-conscious than home-owners, and also the waterfront's been cleaned up a lot. I've been here since '51. I have both a pilot's and a master's license. There are five of us on each shift, and when there's a fire we all go."

Right outside, the bright red fireboat John H. Glenn Jr. , purchased from New York City, waits for the firebell.

On the sidewalk beyond the pier a man rollerskates from side to side with an easy rhythm, swaying past the luxury highrise with its fenced outdoor swimming pool toward the striking, strangely ghostlike Titanic Memorial. The granite memorial "to the Brave Men Who Perished in the Wreck of the Titanic April 15, 1912 and Gave Their Lies that Women and Children Might Be Saved" was sculpted by Gerthrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

At the memorial, a perfect spot for an anti-ERA rally, the sidewalk turns left, along the brick fences of Fort Lesley J. McNair to the army base's gate. Inside the gate, a road leads toward the waterfront again behind the back yards of the generals whose uniform brick homes line the shore, just past General's Row well-dressed elderly people with canes and pearls slowly climb the steps of the Officer's Club. Sprinklers water the grass and shrubs along the shore. A sailboat tacks back and forth, and corncobs, plastic bottles and jar tops float near the bank.

A man in a Hawaiian shirt tees off on the golf course, which surrounds the magnificant National War College building designed by Stanford White, withgian imperial eagles jutting from each side, a pagoda-like roof and a squared-off dome. At the edge of the course, crabapple trees shade benches. On one, a woman sits with an opera score on her lap singing. At the end of the point -- across from Hains Point -- The Washington Channel ends and the waterfront follows the Anacostia River upstream.

Through a fence, you can see the Fort McNair Yacht Basin, but to get there you have to leave the base, walk east on P Street to Second Street SW, and turn right on Second to the river.

At the yacht basin, couples carry coolers toward their boats. A man reads a newspaper spread out on a picnic table shaded by a gracious old elm. Another man pushes a wheelbarrow toward his sailboat.

"There's a nice breeze there," he says hopefully.

On the marine railway, two young men are scraping paint off a 1948 ChrisCraft in the process of restoration. How long will it take? Someday . . ." one of them shrugs.

"You should have one of these," says one houseboat owner to another, blowing a horn. "It say 'big one coming.' With this, I can scare even the Wilson Line . . ."

Behind the Trans Point Building, a government mistake where nobody wants to work but some have to, a walled garden gives way to high weeds along the waterfront. Then a pebbly beach leads to Buzzard Point Marina.

A sloop hoists its sails as it pulls away from the dock. A long black barge chugs up the Anacostia. People sit on old car seats listening to a piano concerto on the radio. A three-generation family picnics under a tree. A path leads past boats on blocks to the marina's back entrance, at Half and V Streets SW.

"Danger, Deep Water, Swift Current" reads the sign, and twenty feet from the shore springs seem to boil up from the bottom.

"That's the cooling water from the Pepco plant," explains a boat owner pulling his van into the marina parking lot. "It's about 120 degrees. It never freezes up around here in the winter."

Across the road, as in a lunar landscape, lies Pepco's Buzzard Point plant. From within, loudspeakers blare unintelligible internal messages. A constant buzz emanates from the building.

"They're biting real slow," says a fisherman on a weeded bank. Fields of Queen Anne's lace and a modern office building with no identifying marks other than the address -- 1900 Half Street. Another Water Street leads past a gravel company to the dock where a Rube Goldberg device pumps oil from the tanker Papa Guy II into the pipeline of the Steuart Petroleum Company, Potomac Avenue leads under the South Capital Street bridge, terrain of parked semis and abandoned refrigerators. At First Street SE you turn temporarily away from the river, then east on O Street to the O Street Sewage Pumping Station, once the D.C. Main Pumping Station an imposing baroque building second only tothe War College in architectural interest on the waterfront.

There are picnic tables under the hawthorn trees along the bank, and the river smells even worse here than anywhere else. The pontooned D.C. Department of Environmental Services river sampling boat sits idly on the grass, and a bush heavy with ripe blackberries twist around a light stanchion. gBeyond what looks like an old boat slip -- now just a place for debris and scum to collect -- loom the old brick buildings of the Washington Navy Yard. sTo get there, however, you have to leave the sewer pumping station the way you came in, go north on First Street, SE to M Street and east along M to the Navy Yard gate at Ninth Street SE.

The vast empty gun factories of the Yard are silent now, and the old forge shop has been recycled into a chapel. Old planes, boats and cannons form an outdoor museum and playground along the waterfront. Piers just diagonally into the river, some with barges or tankers tied alongside.

A speedboat with a sunbather on the bow sends wavelets slapping against the piers, and two mallards swim along, oblivious of floating garbage. In an area fenced off from the public and allegedly guarded by dogs sit a yacht, several rowboats and a canoe.

A wooden fence at the east end of the yard screens out an ugly view created by the next waterfront tenant: the city's Department of Highway and Traffic, which stores old traffic lights and concrete blocks under the 11th Street Bridge. If you edge past the fence, you can see, almost overrun by trees and vines, an abandoned clapboard cottage, The gate to the storage yard is locked, however, so to push on you have to exit through the Navy Yard gate, walk east to 11th Street, turn toward the river and walk under the 11th Street bridge to Water Street SE.

The Peggy S. out of Wilmington pushes an oil tanker past the Army Corps of Engineers facility ("Guard Dogs -- Enter at Your Own Risk") (17) and still another resting place for D.C. trash toward another Steuart Petroleum Company pier.

Beyond the oil company grounds, woods thick with unerbrush and trees that hang over the water mask a half-submerged stone seawall that lends to the Eastern Power Boat Club. People mess around lethargically on old motor yachts, while lamb chops drenched in barbecue sauce sizzle on a charcoal grill.

"Better be careful of the dogs at the next place -- the District Yacht Club," advises a woman sipping a beer on the porch of the old clubhouse. "If one comes near you, say 'Sheba, sit out.' At the District Yacht Club, viewed prudently from behind the fence, the scene is much the same. People putter or picnic, but there's no sign that any boats ever leave the dock. Beyond the club property is a large open space with a defunct water fountain and a National Park Service restroom whose entrance is blocked by overgrown shrubs. A breeze from the river wafts the smell of the honeysuckle around, but does little to cool the air.

"Ain't it hot?" asks a man with his head wrapped in a towel and a stick stuck in the ground for a fishing pole. On the hook end of the string looped around the pole he spears pieces of canned corn.

"The catfish like it," he shrugs.

As the road curves with the river and becomes M Street, the scene repeats itself. Picnickers gaze at their boats from the porch of the Washington Yacht Club, enjoying the breeze and quenching their thirst with Coke from the machine. In the open space next to the club, complete with inoperative drinking fountain and rest room, a woman sits in a car, reading the newspaper. Cool green trees almost hide a castle-like stone parapet, perfet place for watching the sporadic parade of motor boats.

Uner the Sousa Bridge, which takes Pennsylvania Avenue across the Anacostia, a father and two small boys feast on crabs and two young men wash an antique Mercedes. The Anacostia Marina, run by the National Park Service, is awash in power boats, at least half of them up on blocks. Its neighbor, the Seafarers Boat Club at 2100 M Street, is the end of the road. To continue, you have to follow the railroad tracks for about half a mile until they turn into a bridge over the river and you stay on this side of the river and climb up the bank to the RFK stadium access road.

Near the road, the woods are thick and a half-overgrown path hugs the river bank. Dark and cool, it is marked only by dog tracks but sometimes becomes impassible, forcing you to retreat through the underbrush to the road. Near a defunct bridge to nowhere hidden in the woods, a family of ducks and ducklings swim over to the tip of Children Island. The deserted isle with its tangled growth and brown, slow-moving river have an aura of the Amazon with swamp-like plants along the shore, but if you look away from the river you see the D.C. Jail and the sprawling D.C. General Hospital complex. Once you pass under the Whitney Young Bridge and get closer to the stadium, there is more evidence of civilization -- empty six-pack cartons among the poison ivy and thistles along the bank. Huge drain pipes empty into the river and, at almost every one, an oil slick holds a dead fish. Metro speeds out of the ground and rattles overhead.

In mid-river, the dark green Children's Island casts an allure, but a high fence and a no-trespassing sign block access to the island bridge from the stadium parking lot.From the Benning Road bridge, however, a dirt road leads to two modern buildings -- one of them recently burned out -- and a large circular brick plaza, with space for plantings.From the plaza, a Japanese-type bridge arches to another, smaller island (Children's Island is really two islands). Fat crows sit on the bridge, cawing at an intruder to go away, then fly to a dead tree and caw some more. Uner the bridge floating logs look like alligators. Cattails flutter along the bank.

The District doesn't have the funds to complete the project, so the dream of a Children's Island is dead.But the Washington waterfront is alive.