If the recession has you in its grip and you must substitute imagination for money--you can be host to the world's cheapest boating party.

Choose a spot near pool, basin, pond or river and challenge a group of friends to the Dixie Cup: toy sailboat races. As challengers they must provide (and retrieve) their boats; as host, you must provide such elegant fare as tuna fish sandwiches and, of course, the Dixie Cup Trophy.

That's how to do it if you're really broke.

If you're not, boating parties can range from an affordable hour or two in a canoe to a day cruising the bay, captain at the helm, in a 44-foot sailboat. And for people who consider the ultimate naval experience staring at their own stomachs, there are two groups who will plop you in an inner tube and let you float down the river doing just that.

You can row, paddle, raft or sail and if you do it with a group of friends, it doesn't have to cost all that much.

Easiest, cheapest and most intimate--for a party of two, or at most three--are canoes, rowboats or small sailboats. Some places to start:

Jack's Boats, 3500 K St. NW., below Key Bridge (337-9642), rents rowboats and canoes for $5 an hour or $12 a day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays.

Fletcher's Boathouse, 4940 Canal Rd. NW. (244-0461), rents canoes for $4 an hour between 9 a.m. and 7:15 p.m. daily.

Thompson's Boat Center, Rock Creek Parkway and Virginia Ave. NW., opposite Watergate (333-4861), charges $3 an hour or $9 a day for canoes and $6 an hour for small sailboats. Open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and require a security deposit of $10, plus driver's license.

Rafting is a bit more adventurous, but not so harrowing that there isn't time for a Huck Finn fantasy. The closest:

Potomac River Tours (546-7200), 4- to 5-hour raft trips from Great Falls, Va., to Lock 10 on the C & O Canal, below Cabin John Bridge. Starts at 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday and costs $26 a person if the group is small. The larger your group, the lower the rate: 11 to 25 people, $25 each; 26 to 40 people, $24 each, with the organizer floating free; 41 to 52 (the maximum), $22.75 each, free for the organizer. On this one, you bring your own lunch.

Potomac Wilderness (779-6832), daily 4- to 5-hour raft trips from Great Falls to Lock 10 on the C & O Canal, below Cabin John Bridge. Begin about 9 a.m. It's $25 each during the week and $30 each on weekends, with lunch provided and a minimum of six people. (With 12, organizer goes free.)

Other raft, canoe and tube trips further afield:

Blue Ridge Outfitters (304-725-3444), Rte. 340 between Charlestown and Harper's Ferry, W. Va.,raft trips $20 each on weekdays, $28 each weekends, with lunch provided. Five percent discount for 12 people, with the group leader free. Also rent canoes, $30 a day, providing transportation to and from the river.

Downriver Canoe Company (703-635-5526), 10 miles south of Front Royal, Va., canoe trips on the South Fork of the Shenandoah. Shuttle you up river and launch you for $25 to $30 per canoe, depending on how far you go, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends.

River and Trail Outfitters (301-834-9950), across the river from Harper's Ferry, rents canoes for $25 a day and has four-hour guided raft trips, lunch provided, for $19 a person during the week, $28 on weekends. Five percent discount for groups of 12; 10 percent for groups of 24; 15 percent for groups of 36.

The Shenandoah River Outfitters (703-743-4159), rents canoes for $27.50 per day, with a 10 percent discount for groups renting 7 or more canoes. Provide shuttle to and from the river and, for 20 or more people, will feast you with a Canoe Steak Day, $25 a person. Meet you down river and provide lunch (hamburger) and on return, an all-you-can-eat steak dinner. For those who prefer humming "Up the Lazy River," there is the less strenuous tubing: short trips floating along in an inner tube for $5 a person, noon to 4 p.m. after mid-June when the river warms up.

James River Runners (804-286-2338), up-river from Richmond, three-mile down-river tube float for $5 a person (if you want to be shuttled back to your starting place) or $3 a person (if you're happy where you land.) Also rent canoes for $26 a day.

More elegant and guaranteed not to get you wet:

Potomac Party Cruises (683-6076), to pretend you're crossing the Atlantic, dining by candlelight and watching the water slide by. Cruises, 7 to about 10:30 p.m. and cruise and four-course dinner (without taxes, tips or bar charges), $29.70 a person. Also rents a 60-foot boat to groups of 50 or under for $150 an hour. On this one you provide your own food and liquor.

Annapolis Boat Rentals (301--267-7205), rents 24-foot Rainbows for $90 a day or $20 an hour with a two-hour minimum. "We give them the sails and if they can rig it they can take it out," says the man in charge. And if you can't rig the boat, you can rent an instructor for $12 an hour to sail along with you. You must pay a $45 security deposit when you reserve the boat.

Chesapeake Sailing School (261-2810), rents boats ranging in size from 19 to 44 feet, $85 to $175 a day. Add a captain and it costs another $100. Requires a deposit of $50 to $100 when you make the reservation, and a security deposit. When you return the boat intact, it's returned. If you manage to rip the mast off, it's not.