SAILING seems so peaceful, so carefree, viewed from a distant shore. In reality, sailing is a sport that stresses work ethics: preparation, attention to details, vigilance, adjustment to changing conditions and playing by the rules.

"Sailing is where you escape into reality, not from it," says Martin J. Kiely, owner and chief instructor of Maiden Voyage Sailing School.

Kiely put me through a four-day course at his sailing school in Annapolis. I have always been interested in sailing, but lacked confidence that I could do it. That changed after several story assignments took me into the world of sailing and convinced me that, although I will never become a Dennis Conner, I might become a competent sailor.

"A student who successfully completes the four-day course in my school," Kiely says, "is capable of skippering a 23- to 30-foot sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay during the day."

The two other students in my class were realtor Ted Joseph and his fiance', computer instructor Patti Henley, both of McLean. Joseph, owner of a seldom-used 23-foot Bluejacket racing boat, is an experienced sailor. "I have sailed for 15 years, but never as skipper, always as crew," he says. "As a member of the crew, you're doing chores, but never the whole thing. That's why I decided to take lessons."

Joseph says he also wanted to go through a school so he could charter boats elsewhere. His dream is to charter in the Aegean and scuba dive on sunken galleys. By going through Maiden Voyage, Joseph would receive certificates of sailing competency that are recognized by most chartering agencies.

Henley says she decided to take the lessons because she wanted to feel more confident while sailing.

The course we took, available during the week or on consecutive weekends, emphasizes on-the-water experience. Kiely, who learned and taught sailing on Lake Michigan, starts with two hours of explanation of the principles of sailing plus practice in seaman's knots. Then we hit the deck, where we learned the parts of a boat and how to rig the sails on the Creekmore 23, a speedster sometimes used in racing. After lunch we cast off our classroom and began to learn how to sail.

Over the next 3 1/2 days, Kiely drilled us on the fundamentals: getting under way, tacking (shifting course while sailing into the wind), jibing (shifting course with the wind at your back), sail trim and docking. All the while he was asking us what point of sail we were on, whether we or an approaching boat had the right of way, and other nautical matters. Throughout, Kiely managed to retain his patience and sense of humor -- although his man-overboard drills and a series of tacks while sailing up the Severn River nearly exhausted us.

Kiely's system allowed each of us to take turns captaining the boat. By handling all the chores of sailing, we were able to learn how a captain, crew and boat work together.

The drills -- man overboard, docking and mooring -- were part of every day's course and were invaluable in teaching us how to handle these critical moments.

I had entered Maiden Voyage with doubts about whether I could learn how to sail. After four days, I know I can sail.

I tested that belief last Saturday when I chartered the Celtic Mist, a 30-foot Ericson sloop, from North-East-Wind Yacht Charter and took my family for a weekend sail on the Chesapeake Bay. Before setting out, I discussed sailing safety and the functions of the boat's various parts with my wife Barbara and my sons Clayton, 12, and Jonathan, 8. Then we set forth, with Kiely's words in my mind: "The key to entering and leaving dock is to go slowly. Very slowly!" We maneuvered back out of the slip, turned carefully and then motored out of the dock area into the inner harbor of Annapolis. After clearing the harbor traffic, we hoisted sail and headed south on the Bay toward Thomas Point.

The work involved in sailing a boat eventually took its toll on my crew ("I've got blisters!" "I want to go to the pool!" "I'm out of cigarettes!"), and we returned to Annapolis for the night. The boat was docked next to the Chart House restaurant, just opposite the City Dock area, close enough for us to walk to the tangle of restaurants, shops and narrow streets in town.

Sunday morning, we had breakfast on board before again sailing out. This day the winds were light, the sun was bright and the voyage was like seeing a dream become real.

I was sailing!

Which means there's hope for you, too. Here are some other tips on learning to sail:

Before selecting a school, take other factors into consideration than just schedule and cost. These include age of the instructors (are you comfortable being taught by a college student?), how much time you will spend on the water (the more the better), and what size boat you'll be sailing (it doesn't make sense to take lessons on a boat that's significantly larger than one you plan to sail yourself).

Whether a school is certified is not very important; whether the school is recognized by charter agencies is. If in doubt, call Omega Yacht Sales and Charters (from Washington, 261-2749), Chesapeake & Coastal Charters (from Washington, 261-1410) or any charter agency and ask them if they rent to students from the school in question.

If you have the time, consider taking lessons during the week. The boat traffic on the Bay is significantly lighter than on weekends.

The glare from the sun on the Bay during the summer can be vicious. Dress appropriately and carry sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat or visor. If you are prone to seasickness, check with your doctor about medication.

If you're a woman, you might want to consider Womanship, a sailing school with female instructors and a program tailored to women.

Sailing schools are not meant to be cruises. Learning how to sail involves some hard work, and the boats seem to be designed with cleats in the places you sit. In short, be prepared for some physical discomfort. MAIDEN VOYAGE

offers classes for beginners on weekdays, weekends and evenings. Classes are taught on a Creekmore 23, a Kirby 25 and a Yamaha 36. The cost is $375 for the four-weekdays lessons (with Fridays set aside for makeup or practice), for two weekends, or for eight evenings (with two makeup days). Discounts for couples. Students are eligible to join a group sail in the Caribbean this winter. American Sailing Association certified. 726 Second Street, Annapolis 21403. From Washington, call 942-6932. SAILING AWAY

Other sailing schools and charter agencies in the Washington and Annapolis areas that offer instruction from beginning seamanship to advanced offshore cruising:

ADVENTURES AFLOAT --

Lessons for beginners and experienced sailors. Classes cost $150 per group a day plus charter of the boat. P.O. Box 5024, Annapolis 21403. 301/263-2625. From Washington, 858-NAVY.

ANNAPOLIS SAILING SCHOOL --

Offers classes for beginners and advanced sailors in three- and five-day and weekend courses. Classes are taught on 24-foot Rainbows, advanced courses on larger boats. The school is holding an open house through July with free demonstration lessons, films and refreshments. The cost is $180 for the weekend class, $165 for a second person. The three-day course fees are $275 and $215 for a second person, the five-day tabs are $360 and $330. Other packages, including lodging, are available. 601 Sixth Street, Annapolis 21403. 800/638-9192. 301/267-7205. From Washington, 261-1947.

BELLE HAVEN MARINA SAILING SCHOOL --

Lessons for beginners and experienced sailors, adults and children. The classes are held weekdays and weekends and in the evenings. Lessons are taught on a 19-foot Flying Scot. Red Cross certified. Prices range from $110 to $125, depending on the time of the classes. Discounts for groups. The marina is on the George Washington Parkway south of Alexandria. 768-0018.

CHESAPEAKE SAILING SCHOOL --

Classes are offered on weekdays and weekends. Classes are taught on a Tanzer 22. Certified by the American Sailing Association. Classes cost $160 weekends, $210 weekdays. At Port Annapolis Marina, 7074 Bembe Beach Road, Annapolis 21403. 301/269-1594. From Washington, 261-2810.

CHESAPEAKE & COASTAL CHARTERS

offers individual classes through its captains. Times are flexible, but the rates are $100 a day for the captain plus the cost of chartering a boat (which is about $150 a day and up, depending on size). The costs for a group are comparable to that of a sailing school's charge per student. The difference, if any, would be the size of the boat. Classes are taught on a 27-foot C&C. Chesapeake and Coastal Charters also sponsors a four-day live-aboard sailing camp on a 35-foot C&C. The camp costs $440 and will be held August 13-16 and August 27-30. A 15-hour introductory sailing course will be held in July on days, evenings and weekends. The course, taught on a 23-foot Sonar, costs $250. Port Annapolis Marina, 7078 Bembe Beach Road, Annapolis 21403. 301/268-0068. 800/638-7245. From Washington, 261-1410.

FAIR WINDS SAILING SCHOOL --

Live-aboard classes for beginners and experienced sailors on a 30-foot Bristol. Cost for the weekend classes is $150. 700 9th St. SE, Washington 20003. 544-5784.

MENEHUNE CHARTERS --

MOBJACK SAILING CAMP

offers a summer sailing camp for children 10 to 16. One-week sessions are $350, two-week sessions $695. Cruising programs for more advanced sailors are $395 for one week, $795 for two weeks. Sessions run from June 21 to Aug. 22. Camp students are taught on 15- to 17-foot day-sailers and 22-foot O'Days and McGregors. Cruising students are taught on a 42-foot Skipjack and 22-foot Cal. A family camp is offered August 24-28, with sailing, swimming and other sports. Adults $155, children (4 to 17), $120. Families of four or more $550. Fees include sailing, lodging and meals. Weekend sailing lessons are also available for adults and teen-agers in the spring and fall. North, Virginia 23218. 804/725-2759 (or 484-3995 in D.C., November through March).

NORTH-EAST-WIND YACHT CHARTER --

OMEGA YACHT SALES & CHARTERS --

VOYAGE YACHT-SAILING SCHOOL

offers one-day, two-day live-aboard weekends and three-day and longer programs for beginners and experienced sailors. Classes are held on a Tayana 37, docked in the Solomons. Prices are $99 for the one-day course, $199 for the two-day weekend, and $259 for the three-day course. No classes are held Wednesday through Friday. American Sailing Association certified. 1377 K St. NW, Suite 204, Washington 20005. 343-3766.

WASHINGTON SAILING MARINA

offers classes evenings and weekends. The sailing course takes five evenings or Saturday and Sunday. Classes are taught on 14 1/2-foot Sunfish and 19-foot Flying Scots. The cost ranges from $75 to $120, depending on the course chosen. Marina is on George Washington Parkway between National Airport and Alexandria. 548-9027.

WOMANSHIP INC. --

A sailing school for women (or couples), taught by women. All classes, ranging from "absolute beginners" to experienced sailors, are taught on weekdays, weekends and evenings. The classes are actually live-aboard cruises ranging from two-night weekends to week-long trips. Prices range from $345 for weekends to $590 for weekdays and $850 for the seven-day class. Evening sessions are $245 for four lessons. 137 Conduit Street, Annapolis 21401. 301/267-6661.

YMCA and YWCA

sponsor sailing classes for youths and adults. For more information, call your local Y. LESSONS ON LAND

The Coast Guard auxiliaries in the area offer instruction in beginning boating and seamanship. The classes are held evenings in area schools. A small materials fee usually is charged. Call 267-1077.

A good textbook for beginners is the Annapolis Book of Seamanship by John Rousmaniere, Simon and Schuster, $24.95. It's available at most larger bookstores. WINDSURFING

Windsurfing boards use the same principles as sailboats. The difference is that in a sailboat, making a mistake doesn't always get you wet. Here are some of the clubs and marinas that offer windsurfing classes:

BELLE HAVEN MARINA --

offers a four-hour windsurfing course for $45. The courses are held over two evenings and on weekends. Rental boards available for $7.50 an hour weekdays, $9 weekends. The marina is on the George Washington Parkway south of Alexandria. 768-0018

CHESAPEAKE BOARDSAILING --

Weekend classes. Four-hour lessons are $50, eight-hour lessons are $85. Boards can be rented for $50 a day, $35 for a half day and $12 an hour. Port Annapolis Marina. 301/269-7555.

EUROPA WINDSURF

offers lessons in the evenings and on weekends, beginning this Saturday, at Thompson's Boat House, on the Potomac in Georgetown. The lessons are $80 for two four-hour sessions on weekends or four two-hour sessons in evenings. Boards provided. 333-8204.

INTERNATIONAL SAILING PRODUCTS

offers four- or eight-hour weekend classes for $50 or $85. Rental boards available for $50 a day, $35 for half day, $12 an hour, $8 a half hour. Reservations needed. Apply in person at 318 Sixth Street, Annapolis, or by calling 301/269-6160 or, from Washington, 261-2434.

KINETIC SPORTS CLUB

sailboard lessons plus a full range of activities, including Bay crossings, dinners, boardsailing/camping trips and ballooning. Lessons are held at Chesapeake Beach, Md., and on Pohick Bay near Alexandria. Membership fee of $50 a year includes a newsletter and discounts on lessons, rentals, purchases and trips. 568-0066.

WASHINGTON BOARDSAILING CLUB

meets at the Washington Sailing Marina and sponsors races, demonstrations and other events. 759-3002.

WASHINGTON SAILING MARINA

offers eight-hour windsurfing classes that include written and sailing exams. Students who pass get certification from Sailboard Instructor Group, which allows graduates to rent boards around the world. The program costs $90, including all equipment. Classes are taught every day except Monday. Marina is on George Washington Parkway between the airport and Alexandria. 548-9027.