Winter boat shows in Washington, Baltimore and New York are dangled before us on strings attached to our wallets. The come in the winter, when boatpeople fall off into reveries about what the coming spring, summer and autumn could be like if only they had the proper yacht -- the boat of their dreams.

This is the time of year to sit before a fireside, reading books and magazines about boating, making lists about boating-things-to-do, and comparing boat-show literature with the reality of small-print accessories that make boating more real, and using a pocket calculator to make some financial sense out of what is for most of us an impossible dream.

But, when all else falls, one can still reflect, for free, on that last sail; the one that you never think will be the last, but is, because suddenly it just gets too cold.

So what you do in a desperate time like February when the boat is hauled out or locked in ice is think about times like the last time; about what went wrong -- and right, for that matter -- and how maybe, the next cruise might be improved.

My last cruise, in october, began on an indian summer southerly breeze and ended as the weekend ended -- on a winter-like gale.

We were in shirtsleeves and shorts the day we left for Oxford in a big motor sailer which we had chartered. On our light-air reach across the Chesapeake Bay we wished for something less hefty and faster after leaving the West River. Rounding Black Walnut Point at the southern tip of Tilghman Island and entering into the Big Choptank River, it didn't occur to us that we would be huddled in the pilot house and using the auxiliary wheel steering station much of the way back, grateful in the comfort of a sturdy vessel.

But no matter how rough it gets on the Bay, there's always a safe port nearby, if you only bear up with it. And so it was, late that Saturday afternoon, tied up at a slip in the sunny calm of Oxford's Town Creek. It was difficult to believe the tales we heard of a violent, freak hailstorm that hit the area we'd just sailed through. But we could see it in the exhausted, frightened eyes of people just arriving. That night a full gale howled out of the northwest, so we stayed at our slip in the lee it, preparing ourselves mentally for the all-day bash we knew would come in the morning if the wind kept pumping in from the same direction.

Up at 6, we discovered we were hard aground, in the company of others caught flatfooted by the wind that blew all the water out of the creek during the long night. It would be 12 hours until the high tide, and with out boat, we had no choice: our chartered Islander-37 motor sailer, drawing nearly six feet and displacing 15,000 pounds, could not possibly have been towed off, especially since we were tied up bow-first.That could only damage the rudder. We notified the charter company, the Rhode River Sailing Academy in Annapolis, on our ship-to-shore radio. They were quite understanding.

During the wait, we poked around this well-equipped yacht and were continually amazed every time we opened a drawer or a compartment. Clearly, the owners -- Mr. and Mrs. Burnett H. Radosh, who are off on a three-year tour of duty in Saudi Arabia -- are planning to eventually do some serious blue-water sailing, the way their "4th. of July." is fitted out. To buy one of these new, and equip it in this manner, would cost more than $100,000.

There's a bit of an uncomfortable feeling in being responsible for a large valuable yacht. It tends to make you sail conservatively. But I suppose that's just as well for all concerned. We were cruising, not racing.

During the wait, we pored over literature picked up at the U.S. Sailboat Show opening in Annapolis. With the prices of yachts going out of sight, it's no wonder more people are chartering or taking financial advantages by using their yachts as thoroughbreds in a chartering stable such as ones like the Rhode River Academy and others in Annapolis.

Sleeping six in three private (more or less) cabins, and with standing headroom all around, the Islander is roomy. Weekend rates last year were $470, plus $47 tax and $47 insurance. That figures out to $31 per day per person, or $4 per person, per sailing hour, if you spend eight hours sailing, as you probably should. A security deposit of $500 is refundable.

Having owned a few small sailboats, I can now appreciate and understand the philosophy that decrees that the happiest days of your life are when you buy your boat and when you sell it. There's something to be said about enjoying the pleasures of sailing with none of the many problems that come with it from season to season -- maintenance, equipment, slip rentals, bank payments and so forth. Considering the fact that most people cruise only twice a month, if that much, and that soaring monthly payments can keep boats from even going out, it's no wonder that people are looking for a financial way out.

Well, we talked a lot about that during the wait for the flood tide and when it came late that afternoon there was no happier crew when we were afloat again. Out in the Tred Avon, we raised a deeply-reefed main and unfurled a much-shortened jib for a flying reach in 30-knot northwesterly winds to Benoni point. At the Point, the piper had to be paid.

Unable to beat efficiently to windward with a sagging luff in the roller-furling jib, we pounded into three- and four-foot-high waves in the aptly-named Choptank River and got the hell out of our wild and wet cockpit and into the coziness of the pilot house. The inboard wheel-steering station suddenly made a great deal of sense. and there was a windshield wiper, too, which we sorely needed every time the bow took a plunge.

Not making enough ground, we decided to chance shallow water and motor to Knapps Narrows and Tilghman Island. I was already soaking we from securing the anchor fixed on the bow pulpit, so I was the likely condidate to drop and furl the main after we had cranked in the jib from the safety of the cockpit. it was like riding a bucking bronco, but the main was finally secured and we went plunging ahead into the darkness, looking through the spray for the tricky black entrance to the Narrows.

The stereo had caimed things down, and hot chocolate simmered on the gimbaled four-burner alcohol stove. It was winter outside, but it was eerily calm in the pilot house. Every now and then we'd take a terrific pounding that made me wince with pain on behalf of our yacht that was taking the real beating. Everything held together, though, even us.

We arrived at the Narrows in pitch blackness and decided, after taking a secret vote (four to one) to spend the wild night at a dock. The wind continued to howl through the top of the rigging, and we could only be thankful that we chose not to spend all night slamming and crashing into such a brutalheadwind in the open bay, far from a lee shore.

The next day wind had dropped to about 20 knots, and we headed in a northerly direction on a port beat, changing steering stations as our comfort levels changed. Finally, we got to the mouth of the Rhode River, and motored to the creek in Mayo where "4th. of July" is kept. As luck would have it, we ran aground right in the slip. We could not have gone one inch further. All the water had been blown out.

We relaxed with a few drinks, and more and more we became interested in chartering as opposed to purchasing. But even if you do want to buy, chartering a wide variety of boats gives you the best idea of what you would finally want. Rhode River Academy's fleet numbers almost 50 and ranges in size (and price) from a San Juan-21 ($150/weekend) to a Gulfstar-47 ($775/weekend). Most of the fleet is berthed at the academy's Annapolis headquarters in Easport (301/268-2644) where Commodore Michael Bennet runs the operation from an office/clubhouse complex with a lounge, sleeping quarters, kitchen, showers and picnic area on Back Creek.

Bennet claims that such clubs as his can bridge the gap between those who want to sail and can't afford it, and the boat owner looking for a break on ever-mounting boating costs. He prefers, generally, to discuss such matters in the privacy of his office.

At any rate, there is an undeniable relief in chartering. The headaches -- and there are always headaches in owning a yacht -- belong to someone else, for the most part. Bennet isn't the only one running such an operation, but he claims to be doing well with it.

Something to ponder, perhaps, over the remaining winter, over the season of dreaming and making lists and reading about around-the-world cruises. Until then. . .