Andre the seal, performing a personal rite of spring, slipped into the waters off Cape Cod today for a 230-mile voyage home. Attempting his 10th "formal swim" to his Rockport, Maine, rookery, he got a sendoff normally reserved for a Charles Lindbergh -- even though it looked at first like he didn't want to go. The swim will surely be one of his last, because Andre, at 24, is an old seal.

On a sandy beach beside the Provincetown wharf, where a crowd of about 50 well-wishers had gathered to see him off, the 232-pound harbor seal wriggled laboriously seaward, stopping to gaze moistly at half a dozen photographers in his path.

"It's out that way," coaxed his owner, Harry Goodridge, waving vaguely toward Maine. But Andre, his fat frame the shape of procrastination, didn't budge. "You don't mean to say all these people are bugging you?" Goodridge chided. "You've got it all over them in weight -- just mow 'em out of the way."

Finally, at 12:40 p.m., Andre did just that, plopping into the water and paddling a single length of the beach before diving behind a pier and disappearing into the hazy horizon. If he hugs the shore, as seems to be his preference, Andre's route will take him through Cape Cod Bay, into Massachusetts Bay, around Cape Ann, into the Gulf of Maine and finally to Penobscot Bay and home. In the past he has covered the distance in as little as three days and as much as two weeks.

"Keep going, old Andre," a misty-eyed Goodridge said after the embarcation, hoisting a stiff martini at a local Chinese restaurant. "Swim well. I hope he makes it."

The life expectancy of the harbor seal, a common Atlantic species known as Phoca vitulina, is not much beyond 30, although a few have been known to live into their forties.

This morning Andre was flown by private plane, a press plane giving chase, to Provincetown from Mystic, Conn., where he spends his winters eating and sleeping at the Mystic Marine Life Aquarium. A platoon of news gatherers, including an NBC camera crew, was on hand to chronicle the adventure, a journey fraught with danger -- killer whales, great white sharks -- and unpredictable in outcome.

"How would you feel if he never came back?" Goodridge was asked as Andre swam out of sight.

"No comment," he muttered, staring at the folds in his baby-blue windbreaker. Then, "I have great faith in that animal, absolute faith when he's in the ocean. He knows what the hell it is."

Goodridge added that he had to place a quick call to the Camden Harbor Inn, a saloon near Rockport, where patrons were running a $2 betting pool as to Andre's ETA. "They won't even let me bet," he lamented.

And so the legend lives on, a legend that has made the seal an institution -- not to mention a registered trademark, with Andre T-shirts, Andre tote bags and Andre postcards available at Rockport's Smiling Cow gift shop. Indeed, in this fishing village of 2,800 where Andre was born and raised, he was recently named the Chamber of Commerce's "Citizen of the Year" and serves as honorary harbor master.

He is also a public spectacle in Rockport Harbor, performing tricks nightly during the summer under Goodridge's direction (his Bronx cheer is especially well received). And occasionally he is a public nuisance, swamping fishermen's dinghies with his penchant for flopping into them for naps.

He is, according to Maine Gov. Joseph Brennan, "our most famous summer resident."

Brennan found out just how famous -- and just how popular, not to say revered -- right after becoming governor in 1979, when he complained to the Maine Press Association that the seal and his swims received too much publicity. It took Brennan years to recover from that gaffe, which resulted in a storm of public indignation.

He says he finally "patched things up with Andre" during his 1982 re-election campaign, when he made an apologetic pilgrimage to Rockport. There he got the seal of approval -- and, according to Goodridge, a robust Bronx cheer.

"I consider Andre a supporter," the governor says today. "And I found out that if you don't give Andre his just priority, it will come home to get you."

This May, Goodridge, 69, an erstwhile tree surgeon and deep-sea diver, will mark the 24th year since he found Andre lost in Rockport Harbor and snatched the two-day-old pup from all but certain death.

His first winter, Andre swam away but returned in the spring. As the years went on, he continued to grow restless in the cooler months and sank too many dinghies in Rockport Harbor. When Goodridge began to worry about threats on Andre's life, he conceived the idea of a winter home away from home.

Andre grew up having free reign over the Goodridges' Maine household. "I did object to his going in the living room," says Thalice Goodridge, Harry's wife of four decades. "You could say I'm a 'seal widow.' "

The Goodridges' youngest daughter, Toni Lermond, even asked Andre to be the ring bearer in her wedding to a local diver four years ago. "The minister really questioned us about that," she says. "He made us fill out a psychological questionnaire before he would marry us."

Andre fulfilled his duty with appropriate dignity, Lermond reports.

As for Harry Goodridge, "He just overwhelms me. If he doesn't come back, maybe that means he's gone back to the wild -- and that would suit me fine."