"ARE YOU SURE you know how to sail one of these things?" asked the attendant at Dewey Beach's Bay Sports, pointing to a 14-foot Holder daysailer.

"Hey, guy, last week I sailed a 30-footer on the Bay and brought it back alive," I answered.

"Sailing boats this size is a lot different than sailing a 30-foot sailboat," he replied, a bit smugly I thought. "They're less forgiving."

I should have paid better attention. We had decided to try some of the shore's wide variety of water sports after tiring of the beach's relentless crowds, Frisbees and blaster boxes (plus, the Thrasher's fries had grown cold and stale). The 14-foot Holder didn't look like much of a challenge. I knew -- not from personal experience, though -- that small sailboats are fast, respond quickly to wind and weight shifts, and tend to capsize. But, hey, I did sail a boat more than twice its size and several tons heavier.

"We'll take it easy," I told the attendant. "Just show me how to lower the centerboard." (Small sailboats have centerboards, lowered by hand to act as keels. Larger boats have fixed, lead keels.)

He pointed to the proper line and told me to lower it once we were out into deeper water.

We hoisted sail, shoved off from the beach and proceeded to take our lives in our hands. Despite using all the knowledge I had recently learned at sailing school (where they never said anything about centerboards), the boat was slipping sideways, straight into the pilings of a neighboring marina.

"Push us off!" I instructed my crewmate. "We're going to hit it."

My wife Barbara shifted to the leeward side of the Holder. This created a new problem (the boat began to roll and appeared ready to capsize) but could solve the ramming problem (if we capsized, we wouldn't hit the pilings, although Barbara might be turned into a human fender.)

"The centerboard! I didn't drop the centerboard," I yelled. I hurried to drop it, but it came too late to halt our roll and sideways movement.

Just then, as we abandoned all hope, fate (in the person of a Bay Sports attendant stationed in the water to save such fools as us), swam over to grab the bowline and pull us away from the pilings.

"Both of you must stay on the same side," she instructed, urging my wife to move quickly. "Stay on the side away from the sail." (We sailors would have said "the windward side," but she was probably a novice.)

"I'll tow you out some. Make sure your centerboard is down and then head straight out into the bay," she said.

"This is a lot different than a 30-footer," I told Barbara. "All this excitement is building up my appetite for fries."

The excitement faded, though, as we sailed out into Rehoboth Bay. As we sailed, we could see the other water sports available to beachgoers: jetskis for hot-rodders, colorful catamarans, struggling windsurfers and a parasail -- a boat-towed parachute, which occasionally carries some daring soul. When we saw it, it was carrying only a sand-filled dummy.

Now time had come to turn for port. "I'm going to turn into the wind and then tack. When I say move, shift to the other side," I told Barbara.

Barbara then began to shift, heeling the boat. "Not now!"

"When?" she asked.

"Now!"

I turned the boat, trimmed the sails and then pointed the Holder back to Bay Sports.

The sail was faster on this course, and we soon sailed past the pilings. Now I was a bit smug.

On the beach, the attendant who had grilled me was waiting, waving his arms while I pointed the Holder to a vacant spot on the beach.

We waved back.

He waved even more excitedly, yelling something and pointing to a pole in the water near the shore.

I aimed the boat toward it. Then his yells became intelligible. "No, no!" he was yelling. "Concrete blocks are underwater there!"

He took no chances this time, running into the water to pull us away from the underwater obstacles.

"It's a lot different than sailing a 30-foot boat, isn't it?" he asked.

"You're right. Let's try something different, like waterskiing."

So we did, or rather Barbara, the official test skier, did. (An old football injury prevents me from water skiing. That, plus blinding fear.)

We waded out to the ski boat, where a Bay Sports captain rigged Barbara in a life jacket and skis and then took us out into a quieter part of the bay.

There, Barbara got into the water and bobbed around, her head barely out of the water, toes pointed to the heavens, life jacket up around her ears. We slowly moved away from her.

"Ready?" the driver asked.

"Wait! Kjhyszzf mbbuh zbzff!" she replied.

"She's ready," I translated.

Brrroowwwwmm, the ski boat started to move, taking up the slack in the line. Barbara got up on the skis (which surprised us all). I scanned the horizon ahead for traffic and then looked back. No skier.

"I thought she had skied," the driver said.

"She has, 10 years ago," I replied.

"Let's try again," we yelled at her after circling Barbara once to bring the line and tow handle back.

This time it worked. She skied for 10 minutes, surviving even a crossing boat's wake.

After it ended, gently I must admit, there was only one sore point. Or rather two. "My legs are killing me," Barbara said. "The pounding from the water is fierce. Next time you do it yourself." IT'S BETTER ON THE BAY

The prices for rentals and lessons of boats, boards and skis seem to be about equal. You can try comparison shopping, but you may spend more time phoning and driving around than playing. Here is a quick primer on the sports available:

Sailboats -- Daysailers ranging from 12- and 14-foot Holders and Sunfish up to 18-foot O'Days, Prindles and Cats are available. The boats rent by the hour, beginning at about $20, with discounts for longer rental periods. Some deposit -- car keys will do -- may be required.

Jet Skis -- These small, gasoline-powered sleds can reach up to 35 miles per hour. Instruction takes about 10 minutes, but being able to stand up on the sled and pushing it to the max takes some practice. Rates are about $20 per half-hour. Two person jet-skis are available at some sports outlets.

Parasailing -- Need to get away from it all? In parasailing, the only thing you're attached to is a harness, which is then attached to a 300-foot tow rope connected to a speed boat. The harness is also attached to a parachute. Theoretically, parasailers are launched from a moving platform or barge and then land on the same -- and thus never get wet. Theoretically. The ride, which can take you up to 250 feet into the air, lasts a short 10 to 12 minutes, if you enjoy it, or forever, if you discover your fear of heights. The cost is $25 and up, depending on the time.

Waterskiing -- You can rent a ski boat and equipment for one person and do it yourself or you can do as we did and have the attendants take you out for a pull. Pulls last 10 minutes, if all goes well. The cost is $20, and no more than two skiers will be pulled at a time for safety reasons. Renting your own boat and skis will cost about $60 an hour.

Wind surfing -- "It takes about two hours to learn windsurfing," says Barry Grise of Sailing Inc. on Fenwick Island. "But you need light winds to learn." Lessons and board at Sailing Inc. are $50 for two hours. Board rentals after you know how are fixed at $15 for the first hour, discounts for longer periods. If all fails, Grise will rescue you for $20. On weekends, Windsurfing Unlimited in Dewey Beach offers free demonstrations.

Surfboards -- Beginners should start out with a longer surfboard, says David Digirolamo of Bethany Surf Shop. "Unless you catch the wave, you can't surf. The shorter boards are more maneuverable and are for experienced surfers. We tell a lot of kids to start out on boogie boards {short, stubby surfboards}, which help teach you how to catch a wave. Standing up on the board is the natural, next step. If the waves are real small, you'll fall off but you will get a feel for it." Surfing lessons are self-taught, unless you found a surfer friend while basking on the beach. The rental price for boards is cheap, between $8 to $35 a day.

Speed and other boats -- Mini-speed boats, canoes, recreational rowing shells, fishing boats and pontoon or float boats that look like waterlogged Winnebagos can also be rented at the shore. The hourly cost ranges from $5 for canoes to $25 (with minimums) for pontoon boats, which make great platforms for the whole family. BOATS, JET SKIS, PARASAILING ASSAWOMAN SAILING, ETC. -- Cats, Sunfish, sailboards and lessons. Coastal Highway, Fenwick Island. 302/539-7999. ATLANTIC BOAT RENTALS -- Speed boats, pontoon boats, water ski boats, mini-racers and parasailing. 67th Street, Ocean City. 301/723-4919. BAHIA MARINA -- Fishing boats and pontoon boats. 22nd Street, Ocean City. 301/289-7438. BARNACLE BILL'S MARINA INC. -- Rentals of fishing boats and motors, small speed boats, and 20-foot pontoon boats. 52nd Street, Ocean City. 301/524-7220. BAY SPORTS -- Daysailers include Holders, Sunfish and Cats. Windsurfing, jetskis, waterskiing, parasailing, paddleboats and boat rides. RudderTown, Dewey Beach. 302/227-7590. BEASTON'S BOAT RENTALS -- Motorboats, sailboats, canoes, pontoon boats, ski boats and rowboats. On Highway 1 south of Bethany Beach. 302/539-3452. DEWEY BEACH SAILING -- Hobie Cats and windsurfers, rentals and lessons. Dagsworthy, Dewey Beach. 302/227-1777. ISLAND SAILING CENTER -- Sailboards, Sunfish, Aquafin daysailers. Larger sailboats, catamarans available. Also canoes and recreational rowing shells. Sailing, sailboard lessons. South Main Street, Chincoteague. 804/336-6336. NEW HAPPY HOLIDAY BOAT SALES -- Sunfish rentals. 209 Savannah Road, Lewes. 302/645-8904. RAINY DAY CANOES -- Canoe rentals, by the day and weekend. Racetrack Road, Berlin. 301/641-0552. SAILING ETC. -- Sunfish, Delta and Phantom daysailers and 16-foot Hobies and Prindles. Windsurfer rentals and lessons (with a money-back guarantee). 53rd Street, Ocean City. 301/723-1144. SAILING, INC. -- Rents Cats, Sunfish and other boats. Fenwick Island. 302/539-7999. U-DRIVE-EM BOATS -- Fishing boats and motors. Long Neck Road, Millsboro. 302/945-3440. WATERSPORTS UNLIMITED -- Jet skis, sailboats and float boats. Route 54, Fenwick Island. 302/539-8666. WATERWAYS -- Jetskis (one- and two-man). 49th and 54th streets and the Bay, Ocean City. 301/524-0209. SAILBOARDS, SURFBOARDS BETHANY SURF SHOP -- 112 Garland Parkway, Bethany. 302/539-6400. CLEARLIGHT SURF SPORT & CYCLE -- 11607 Coastal Highway, Oyster Bay Shopping Center, Ocean City. 301/524-8823. DEWEY BEACH SURF & SPORT -- New Orleans Street and Ocean Highway, Dewey Beach. 302/227-8288. ENDLESS SUMMER SURF SHOP -- Two locations in Ocean City, 3708 Coastal Highway (301/289-3272) and 722 Mooring Drive (301/524-7873). FENWICK ISLAND SURF SHOP -- Ocean Highway. 302/539-5800. ISLAND SAILING CENTER -- Sailboards for rent. Lessons available. Chincoteague. 804/336-6336. OCEAN ATLANTIC SURFING PRODUCTS -- 35th Street, Ocean City. 301/289-3830. OCEAN CITY SURF & SPORT -- 29th Street, Ocean City. 301/289-8066. SUNDANCER -- Two locations in Ocean City, S. Baltimore Avenue (301/289-3516) and Ocean Plaza Shopping Center (301/723-3516). SUNSHINE HOUSE -- 63rd Street, Ocean City. 301/524-6004. WINDSURFING UNLIMITED -- Free demonstrations on weekends, plus you can pick up and drop off boards at the beach or at Windsurfing Unlimited's Annapolis or Bethesda shops. 1705 Route 1, Dewey Beach. 302/227-3998.