IT'S HARD to get good help," yacht racers are fond of saying. And after a day on the foredeck of a racing sloop, I can see why. The foredeck is a mine field. You have to know what you're doing just to get in trouble.

Lines and shackles and poles and shrouds and stays and rails are everywhere, all trying to foul each other as the boat pitches merrily over every lump in the water. The minute you have things set up the way you think they ought to be, the bright guys in the back of the boat decide to do something different and you have to move everything, which is called tactics.

The foredeck of a sailboat is the area forward of the mast, which on a 30-foot racer like Puffin, on which I was pressed into service in Chesapeake Bay last weekend, means a space about 10 feet long and five feet wide at the widest, tapering down to nothing at the bow.

Into this small space are crammed the following items, all of which must be properly placed in relation to each other during racing: double life rails on each side, a bow pulpit, a spinnaker, spinnaker pole, spinnaker afterguy and spinnaker sheet, spinnaker halyard, topping lift, foreguy, genoa jib, two genoa jib sheets, two jib halyards, the forestay, two shrouds and the foredeck man.

I have been avoiding confronting this spaghetti-mess for 25 years of sailing, including five years of sailboat ownership during which I stared every weekend at the jumble of spinnaker gear that came with the boat and decided, time after time, that it was just too complicated to fool with.

But you cannot race without a spinnaker, that great, colorful balloon of a sail that billows out in front of the boat when running with the wind. And as my racing interests grew, it became apparent that some day I would have to tackle the foredeck, where the spinnaker work is done.

Some day proved to be Sunday, when foredeck man Joe Salsich failed to show for our scheduled race with Rob Mairs in the South River series near Annapolis. Thus we were down to a crew of three, and Mairs, meteorologist for the U.S. Olympic sailing team at Los Angeles last summer, in his wisdom appointed me to the foredeck.

"It will be all right," he counseled calmly. "There's not that much to it."

Just the same, I didn't see him volunteering.

Happily, the first three legs of the race were all upwind work, meaning no spinnaker set. As we neared the buoy marking our first downwind turn, I ran forward, set up the spinnaker bag on the port side and laid out its confusing lines.

But the winds dictated a late change in strategy and Mairs sent the message forward to re-rig everything on the starboard side, and fast.

"If you hurry, you can screw anything up," is the motto of a Mississippian I know, and when we started hauling the spinnaker out of its bag, he came instantly to mind.

The halyard, which hoists the sail, was wrapped under a lifeline. The afterguy, which controls the spinnaker pole, was wrapped around the bow pulpit; and the sheet, which controls the loose end of the spinnaker, was wrapped around something unidentifiable.

Undoing everything and putting it back together was a bear, since it meant disconnecting the sail from its control lines one by one and then reattaching them. The wind would catch billowing sections of the feather-light nylon during these maneuvers, and try to pull the foredeck man overboard.

Meantime, Puffin led the fleet, so all eyes were upon us, including those on a boat called Thumper, which was thundering up from behind with all canvas flying, including a big blue spinnaker in perfect form.

Mairs was wonderfully supportive through it all, shouting soothing things like, "How should I know?" when asked such thought-provoking questions as, "What do I hook this thing to?"

Astonishingly, and thanks principally to the fact it was a gentle day, things got put right. The great sail filled and began tugging us ahead before Thumper shot alongside. Bit by bit, Mairs worked away from the challenger, and a half-hour later the sleepy fellow on the committee boat looked up from his reading and tooted his horn, honoring Puffin as first across the finish line.

Thumper was next, and came alongside so its skipper could say something awful about "corrected time," and how somebody other than the first one across the line could be the winner.

"I don't know anything about that," I thought to myself. "I just sail the boat. I'm the foredeck man."