It was supposed to be "a social occasion," says one participant. "Just a lark," another insists. Mostly middle-aged alumni of Cambridge University -- the president of an accounting firm, a couple of lawyers, the secretary of the Navy and such -- would row against an equally respectable Oxford crowd in a friendly meet on the Potomac.

But in the weeks leading up to the Oxford v. Cambridge Alumni Boat Race -- a public spectacle that starts tomorrow at 4 p.m. near the Potomac Boat Club in Georgetown -- the atmosphere has turned somewhat wild and woolly.

"I understand those Oxford pukes are selling disinformation," says Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. (Cambridge, Caius College '67). "Myself, I couldn't go to Oxford -- my parents were married."

"Oh, heavens!" responds ex-CIA hand George A. Carver Jr. (Oxford, Balliol College '51), now of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "John should be more careful with his language."

Accounts differ as to how matters got to such a state. Lehman blames "the defeatist paranoia of the Oxford team." Carver credits the Cambridge team's "true Stakhanovite zeal" -- a reference to the legendary Aleksei Stakhanov, a model Soviet worker of the Stalin era who inspired his comrades to greater glory by overfulfilling his production quotas.

In any case, it all started a few months back, when the local Oxbridge community of erstwhile oarsmen -- their memories drenched in the Cam and the Isis -- decided that Washington should have a rowing event to rival the alumni races on the rivers of New York.

Watneys and British Airways signed on as sponsors, and the British Embassy and Georgetown University agreed to host. Two weeks ago, the opposing crews of eight oars each, plus a coxswain to steer and shout, started practice "outings" on the Potomac in their 60-foot shells.

Then came fear -- with loathing not far behind.

First the casual Oxonians were taken aback by the apparently grim determination of the Cantabs, who -- prodded by the Navy secretary, very correct in his light-blue togs -- have so far had six outings compared with Oxford's three. The Cantabs, for their part, were suspicious of an Oxonian proposal to shorten the race from 2,000 to 1,000 meters. While they grudgingly accepted, it seemed designed to help the Oxford oars, who are generally "more seasoned and experienced" -- that is to say, older -- than the Cambridge crew.

The Cantabs were further provoked by what they saw as an Oxonian attempt to import ringers from far-flung metropolises. When Oxford, pleading a weak local talent pool, wanted to fill an empty berth with Philadelphia businessman Christopher I. Blackwall (Keble College '67, twice a member of the British national team), Cambridge threatened to call in Philadelphia airline executive H. Boyce Budd (Trinity College '62 and a 1964 U.S. Olympic gold-medalist) -- known in some select rowing circles as "The Thunderer."

Cambridge raised no objection, however, to the president of Hampden-Sydney College, Josiah Bunting (Christ Church '63) -- who is expected to pull one of Oxford's oars tomorrow with virtually no practice. The Oxonians began to grumble that the Cantabs were "turning the race into a grudge match."

Matters came to a head with last Wednesday's Oxford outing on the Potomac, not far from where the Cambridge crew was holding its own practice. Several Oxonians swear they were buzzed more than once by a Navy helicopter -- and they wondered aloud if Lehman had ordered a reconnaissance mission.

"That's categorically untrue," the secretary says. "I didn't even see any Navy helicopter. What I detect here is a masterful disinformation campaign by George Carver, who works at a place that is known for its plotting and schemes and stratagems."

"Oh, heavens!" Carver says once more.

"We plan to have things well in hand by early in the race," Lehman adds. "And we'll also have the prettiest bow . . . Bring your binoculars."

Says the occupant of Cambridge's bow, the Rev. Dana English (Trinity '83), a Presbyterian minister and the only woman in the race, "Oh, gosh!"