It's been a complicated year for Jim Allsopp, who makes his living sailing around the world on other people's fancy, expensive yachts.

Last February he helped Bill McAteer campaign the red sloop Immigrant to third place in class in a series of races called the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit, in Florida and the Bahamas.

Then in March came the Star-class world championships in Rio de Janeiro.

In June he was booked for the Newport-Bermuda race aboard Al Van Metre's 63-footer, Running Tide.

After Bermuda he got a call to help out the America's Cup campaign of Clipped , the 12-meter yacht skippered by young Russell Long. "The summer on Clipped really threw my schedule out of whack," said Allsopp.

But by September Clipper had been ousted from the Cup competition and Allsopp was free to fly off to Italy to race in the Sardina Cup.

This month he's in Annapolis, sailing on Running Tide in the Chesapeake fall series. At the end of October he'll fly to Spain to join the crew of Midnight Sun for the Ibiza race, then he'll be off for more Star sailing in Florida in November.

The first break Allsopp gets will be in December, when he takes a skiing vacation in Aspen. Then it's back to the salt mines in January for the Buenos Aires-to-Rico race on Ondine , and then on to Florida for the SORC.

Tough life.

Don't laugh. Allsopp, who does this for a living, calls it "the tragedy of sailmakers."

"It's hard," said the blond director of the Annapolis loft of North Sails. "You try asking five or six young guys making $10,000 or $15,000 a year to go sailing every weekend of their lives with people they might not even want to be with."

Allsopp is the victim of a marketing scheme so good it's made a monster of itself. About five years ago top officials at North Sail decided to make a conscious effort to "service" their sail-buying customers.

"Before that," said Allsopp, "a guy came in to the loft and told you what he wanted. You'd build him a sail and he picked it up Friday night. If it didn't fit right, you told him you'd come by and look at it when you got a chance."

Under the new concept Allsopp and the men who work for him take it upon themselves to sail in the races with their customers on request, working along with the crew while at the same time analyzing sail problems and proposing solutions.

The other major sailmakers have followed suit, and the end result is a great cadre of excellent sailors (Allsopp, for example, is Star-class world champion) who are at the beck and call of troubled racing skippers. The skippers are becking and calling all the time.

"There's probably 50 of us doing the big ocean races now," said Allsopp, "and hundreds more in the little lofts doing local races, plus all the mast people, boat designers, boat builders, fitting people and instrument salesmen" -- a veritable fleet of topflight sailors ready to sail on call. Ready, maybe, but sometimes less eager.

"It really is hard on these guys," said Peter Barrett, a director of North Sail. "Imagine what it's like for a young married guy. I just don't see how they can do it."

But look at the alternative.

Allsopp came to this line of work after a troubled career as an oceanographic engineer at Westinghouse. "A job like that is all paper-pushing on government projects," he said.

"I went home at night and my clothes stunk from somebody else's recycled air-conditioned cigar smoke. I knew it was time to get out."

So in 1973, at age 28 and after four years in the business, Allsopp climbed out. A few years later he found himself working in a sail loft.

In 1977 he tied on with North and since then it's been a race from one sailboat race to the next. He helps wealthy skippers improve their finished in races; and when they do, they often listen to his advice on what sails they could use. If they buy North, he's done his job.

It's a busy life, running from one elegant spot on the globe to the next. And all those beautiful women in port . . .

"Beautiful women? They all go with the beautiful guys. Us poor slobs have to make it on our own," said Allsop.

Actually, it's lonely, he insisted. But there are rewards and it beats somebody else's cigar smoke. "Right now I just can't get enough of ocean racing. It's the sense of danger, I guess. It's almost getting to be an obsession with me," said Allsopp.

"Whether I was a pipefitter or a sailmaker, that's one thing I wouldn't want to miss."