BEFORE THE TURN of the century there were more than six thousand log canoes on the Chesapeake Bay. Today there are fewer than 30 left, almost all of them dedicated to racing.

"They originated as working boats," says R. J. (Jim) Holt, director of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum at St. Michaels. "The log canoes were an adaptation of the Indian dugouts and were at one time the most common working boats on the Bay."

The 1880 Census found at least 200 first-class canoewrights on the Eastern Shore turning out an average of 175 canoes each year in addition to other boats such as the log canoe's big brother, the Bugeye.

Judge John B. North of Easton, whose family owns and races three log canoes, believes that racing began informally among the watermen. "They would race home at the end of the day to see who had the fastest canoe and also because the first boat back got the best price for their catch."

David McQuay, who is the fourth generation of boatbuilders and sailors of these craft that are unique to the Chesapeake Bay, says that before 1900 people came from as far away as Baltimore to have canoes built by the master canoebuilders. "There used to be regattas every year and all the canoe builders would get together and talk about what made them go faster."

Holt says that the formal racing has been going on for more than a century. "We have a letter complaining about having to stop the racing in St. Michaels because of the war. You look at the date of the letter and find out that they were talking about the Civil War."

McQuay says there aren't many of the canoes left and most are pretty old: "There are about 25 log canoes still campaigning, and most of the newest ones were built in the 1930s with the oldest made before 1900."

McQuay ought to know: His great- grandfather Sidney W. Covington built the canoes made before the turn of the century and his grandfather John B. Harrison built those made in the 1930s.

North says that the canoes built in the '30s were "gold platers," supercanoes such as Jay Dee and Flying Cloud. "No expense was spared. They had the best of everything and were constructed strictly for racing."

The man who built the Jay Dee and the Flying Cloud was John B. Harrison, North's great-uncle and McQuay's grandfather. "When these supercanoes were built they engendered some hard feelings," North said. "The local lads felt that they were engaged in unfair competition with these newcomers, who had heavy purses and could afford to equip their boats with the best in design theory and sails and spars."

Flying Cloud's now owned by Rockville attorney Alan Nobles and his brother John and skippered by McQuay.

The Nobles inherited her from their father, a naval artist, who had taken her briefly to Staten Island to use as a daysailer. "Dad liked the canoes because he thought, and I agree, that just to look at they are probably the world's most beautiful sailing craft. Either sitting at a dock or under sail they are amazingly handsome," says Alan Nobles.

He says the speed of log canoes is what makes them such a delight. "They go about twice as fast as other sailboats their size," Nobles says. "And being so very low to the water, you get a sensation of skimming along."

According to sailmaker Morris Elison of Easton, a contributing factor to that speed is that "log canoes are grossly over-rigged, which makes them fun."

Elison says he makes "probably 90 percent of the log-canoe sails in the world," which he notes isn't that hard since there are so few boats. "They carry perhaps two to three times the amount of sail of other boats their size. There are no rules on that score. You can carry all the sail you're man enough to put up. If you can get her out on the race course with it up, it's legal."

As a sailmaker Elison says he can crew on about any type of boat he wants and has been on most, but prefers log-canoe racing to any other. "They are incredibly fast and about as much fun as you can have on a sailboat. It takes you back to the essence of sailing."

Elison sails on Magic, owned by James Wilson of St. Michaels, as his primary ride. "I started racing log canoes in 1975 and have only missed two races since then."

The canoes are schooner-rigged with the foremast up and the mainmast to the rear. "Downwind they can carry up to six sails, which on Magic means more than twelve hundred square feet of canvas, which is a whole lot to try and keep track of," Elison says.

Another peculiarity of log canoes is the "hiking board." Almost everyone has seen pictures of people leaning out of a sailboat in a stiff breeze, but in log canoes they go one step farther, putting a board over the side for the crew to climb out on.

"Hiking boards are how we keep the canoes rightside-up," says Marty Berger, a Washington lawyer who crews on Flying Cloud. "It's a sort of giant pryboard about 16 feet long, hollow in the center to make them lighter. Because the canoes are so narrow we put the boards under the lee rail and rest it on the weather rail, then the crew scrambles out on them to counterbalance the load for the sails."

Rob Dutton is another Flying Cloud crewmember from Washington, who "works in property management during the week to support my log-canoe and sailing habit."

Dutton said, "Of course when you come about you have to haul in the hiking boards and reverse the procedure. On a big boat like this we usually have a crew of nine, but on days when there's a lot of wind we will carry a few extra people."

The oldest canoe in competition differs from the "Tilghman" canoes in that it comes from the other side of the Bay. The Sandy is a Poquoson canoe from the Virginia shore and is "about a hundred and twenty-five or thirty years old, nobody knows for sure," says owner Bill Hanlon of Sherwood.

Hanlon has been racing canoes ever since he bought Sandy in 1955 but has taken the process one step farther. "In 1973 I started building a new canoe and we launched it in '76. It didn't start out to be a Bicentennial project, but it turned out that way," he said.

The Faith P. Hanlon, named for his wife, was launched at the Miles River Yacht Club on July 4, 1976 and for that reason they gave her the number 76.

Hanlon's a throwback to the original log-canoemen. "Built every stick of her myself, working weekends mostly for three winters."

C. H. Breedlove is a chemistry professor at the Rockville campus of Montgomery Community College who got into the sport quite by accident. "A neighbor of mine asked me to come along one weekend to sail on a single log canoe," he says. "I had this image of sitting on a burned-out log with a pole, but that changed in a hurry."

Breedlove says his most exciting moments in canoe racing came when he was swept overboard on the Chester River several years ago. "The first time they tried to recover me they missed by 60 yards. The second time they came around they threw me a line and threw both ends into the water. On the third pass they got us back into the boat and we continued the race."

Master canoewright Sidney W. Covington, North's great-uncle, built the "Island B" series at Tilghman Island: Island Beauty, Island Belle, Island Bride. . . of which Island Bird (1882) and Island Blossom (1892) still are being raced by Norths.

McQuay says that today the cost of restoring a boat to racing trim, "with the masts and all the spars and different little things that would be needed, it wouldn't be any trouble to spend $20,000 on one. Then you have to look toward sails and with a big boat another $10,000 is not a whole lot of money to spend. It's not a poor man's sport."

The canoes race on the rivers of the Eastern Shore almost every weekend from July 4 until late September. The premier event is the Governor's Cup, on the first weekend in August.

Since no two of the boats are the same, they compete under a handicap formula that seems complex but works well. "It's not at all unusual to have a 10-mile race lasting up to two hours decided by two or three seconds after the handicap is figured in," North says. "It's utter insanity, but it's a lot of fun."HEY, HO, BOATMAN GO

Here's this season's log canoe racing schedule (and for further information, call Bobbi Marshall of the Chesapeake Bay Log Canoe Racing Association at 301/745-5729):

JULY 4-5 -- St. Michaels

JULY 11-12 -- Rock Hall Yacht Club, Chester River

JULY 18-19 -- Chester River Yacht Club

AUGUST 1-2 -- Governor's Cup Race, Miles River Yacht Club (outside St. Michaels)

AUGUST 8-9 -- Tred Avon Yacht Club, Oxford

AUGUST 15-16 -- Cambridge Yacht Club

SEPTEMBER 12 -- Miles River Yacht Club

SEPTEMBER 13 -- Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (St. Michaels)

SEPTEMBER 19-20 -- Perry Cabin Races (St. Michaels)