Ever since he was a boy of 10 and felt the first sharp jerk of wind filling the main, Phil Burgess has sailed.

He has sailed for 55 years, on transatlantic voyages, through storms and high swells, across quiet northern lakes, around Puget Sound islands. He has raced and just drifted. He has taught sailing, and sailing has taught him.

His Annapolis home is the refuge of an old seadog, with five sailboat sculptures in the living room, two brass sloops in the guest bath and nine sailboat pictures in his dining room. He moved to the waterfront in 1993, even though he worked in Denver. Every street sign in his neighborhood is culled from a sailor's glossary -- Mainsail, Bowsprit and Anchorage drives, Landfall Lane. For years, he commuted from the Rockies so he could sail on the Chesapeake Bay.

Yet last fall, Burgess did the unthinkable.

He bought a powerboat.

His wife was aghast. His son threatened mutiny. His fellow sailors branded him a "transvesselite."

Since the dawn of the outboard motor, sailors and powerboaters have regarded each other with withering disdain. In Annapolis, "America's Sailing Capital," boaters segregate themselves: Sailors tend to ply the Severn River, on the north side, while powerboaters rule the South River.

To powerboaters, a sailboat is a "rag-hauler" and sailors are "barnacle backs" and "leathernecks" -- "snobby/shabby" old salts who either don navy blazers and dine at the Yacht Club or live as unwashed vagabonds on stripped-down sloops. They ruin long summer days by broiling under an often windless sun -- hauling lines, working up a sweat and going nowhere.

Powerboaters, meanwhile, flash like peacocks: They dress well and tip better -- "Sailors know the wind is free, and they think everything else should be, too," one powerboater griped a few years ago to The Post, just before the sailboat show dropped anchor.

Sailors see themselves as the cowboys of the wind. And they may be cheap, says Jim Stalnaker, a Virginia Beach mariner with 40 years' experience, but powerboaters drive "stink-potters" with a "pneumatic blonde perched on the stern and a couple guys with ball caps turned around."

But don't print that, he jokes, remembering that in May he became a newly minted powerboater himself: "I don't want to be quoted and stoned by a bunch of guys . . . who said that I called 'em a bunch of Bubbas."

"We're the Harley-Davidsons on the water," Mark Willis, president of the Chesapeake Bay Powerboat Association, says with a sigh. He loves the speed and thrumming hum of powerboats, and he resents sailors' self-proclaimed superiority: They're environmentally friendly! They're rugged and hardy! They're harvesting the wind!

So jumping ship, and becoming a transvesselite, can be a decision fraught with second-guesses and deep questions about identity.

"Sometimes I think there should be a couch in my office," says Rob Poirier, vice president of sales and marketing at PDQ Yachts, a Whitby, Ontario, manufacturer that once built only sailboats but today has converted almost entirely to power.

His crossover clients "want to talk about all the glory years they spent sailing," Poirier continues. They worry that by giving up the intensity -- high winds, transatlantic crossings, the squall-braving need for foul-weather gear -- they're about to join "the gold-chain crowd." They fret: Does buying a motor yacht mean they're getting old?

"Do we have a really sharp knife up there?" Burgess calls to his wife from the water.

An old crab pot line has tangled the starboard engine of their 34-foot PDQ power yacht, tying up the prop and sending thick, black smoke out the back. So Burgess impatiently dives in, not taking the time to change. Fully clothed in cuffed pants, dress shirt, leather belt, navy socks and white-soled sneakers, he ducks under the boat, hoping to slice through the rope and free up the prop so they can cruise to Annapolis Harbor.

"Welcome to boating!" taunts their neighbor, Dan Billingsley, as he heads down the dock to his C&C 40 sailboat, the Jubilee.

Burgess nods grimly, gulps more air and heads back under, a brown leaf stuck to the top of his balding head.

"Well," says Mary Sue Burgess, who's still "not really happy about" the switch, "we broke it in for sure today."

Around them, at their dock just off the Severn River, the setting sun colors the sky and creek with a hazy, soft pink. Two ducks paddle past and another starts quacking on the beach. In the distance, downriver toward the Chesapeake, ospreys watch over the channel and dark manta ray wings slice the surface.

Burgess comes up for more air.

"So, how's it going there, Ace?" Billingsley asks.

"I keep cutting through," Burgess answers, holding up a fistful of rope. Motor oil darkens his shirt. He will not be deterred from tonight's ride: He's eager to show off.

Even before he set foot on the boat this evening, he began proclaiming all the reasons that power outperforms sail.

"You can leave anytime!" he cried. "Go any direction! And you know almost exactly when you'll arrive!"

"How much was the gas when you had to go buy more?" ribbed Steve Billingsley, their neighbor's 18-year-old son.

"How much were the sails when you had to buy more?" Burgess shot back.

Burgess is unapologetic about the switch.

" 'Life is a journey, not a destination,' " he quotes. "I used to believe that. But as you get older, you realize there is an end."

Forget "the thrill of the wind through the hair," he says. He wants "to go different places and see different things -- faster."

There have always been swabs who, in their fifties, sixties and seventies, abandoned the Xtreme Sport that is sailing for spacious powerboats where "you're not cranking those winches and hauling up the sails -- all you do is press buttons, and things happen," as transvesselite Neville Williams, 66, who lives in St. Michaels, puts it.

But that switch is happening more often now.

"Just as the boomer generation has changed every element of American life," Burgess says, "the people interested in boating are, in very large numbers, shifting."

It's not just that older salts are aging out. It's also that younger boaters are too impatient to join in, says John Peterson, former president of Sail America, the sailboat industry association.

"People today, their most precious commodity is time," he says. "And sailing, if you're going to use a sailboat to get anywhere, is extremely time-consuming."

Crossing the 20 miles of Chesapeake Bay between Annapolis and St. Michaels takes an hour in a powerboat. On a sailboat, if there's wind -- a big if in summer -- it's five hours. At least.

Jim Barthold, general manager of the Annapolis Sailboat and Powerboat shows, which together draw 50,000 visitors every October, insists that sailboats are still a viable part of the industry: "It is growing, [just] not by leaps and bounds." The sailboat show adds two or three new models every year, he says, but in the next breath he admits, "America has always been in love with being able to jump in, turn the key, have the motor rev and off they go."

At the start of the '90s, powerboats accounted for two-thirds of boating sales, while sailboats held the rest, says Peterson, who is also director of sales and marketing for Hunter Marine, which makes sailboats.

Today, new powerboat sales have exploded, making up 90 percent of the market. In 2004, new powerboat sales added up to $11.9 billion, while new sailboats clocked in at $603 million. "Sailing is a very niche market," notes Ellen Hopkins, spokeswoman for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which tracks the numbers.

"Sailing needs to get more aggressive in recruiting new people," says Scot West, executive director of Sail America.

Some longtime sailboat manufacturers have disappeared. Others have cut way back on sailboats and moved heavily into power. Dealers are shifting, too. The Annapolis Sailyard, for example, sold only boats with sails for 20 years; four years ago, it added powerboats -- which now outsell new sails 3 to 1.

"What shocked me," notes longtime sailor Howard Hobbs, vice commodore of the C&C Sailing Club Chesapeake Bay, was learning that at the Hinckley Co. -- "famous Maine sailboat builders," Hobbs says -- powerboats now make up 93 percent of production. Sailboats have dwindled to 7 percent of its business.

"Shocked," he says. Even though he frequently attends his sailing club functions in his Shamrock 26 powerboat.

The rope is finally cut away, and Burgess's powercat is cruising up the Severn toward downtown Annapolis.

"Sixteen knots," he says, preening as he works the throttle at the large steering wheel, 12 feet above the water. "Three times what you'd be going in a sailboat."

Upriver, a few dozen sailboats circle, spinnakers raised, graceful polka dots of red, lime, yellow and purple. Just beyond them, the sun is a deep orange-pink falling behind the Naval Academy's copper domes.

"The thing I don't like," Burgess confesses, is how, in a sailboat, the captain steers from the stern of the boat and "you can talk to everybody, and they can talk to you." But on his new power catamaran, he's up high and people congregate behind him, or down below, in the bow.

"You feel a little bit like a bus driver," he says.

He turns up Annapolis's Ego Alley, the inlet where boaters show off. Sure enough, as Burgess passes the dockside restaurants and bars, heads swivel admiringly.

Burgess's sailboat, Happy Days, is for sale. He and Mary Sue have named the new boat It Is Well.

As for all of their sailing paraphernalia -- the sculptures, the maps, the pictures, the nautical flags -- he muses, "I don't know.

"We'll keep the pictures," he finally decides. "We're gonna keep those to remind us of what we really like."

Powerboats and sailboats share the water, sometimes grudgingly, off Annapolis. More and more boaters, many of them longtime sailors, are opting for engines over canvas.

Phil Burgess pilots his new power catamaran to the dock behind his Annapolis home. His switch from sail last fall stunned his wife and drew jeers from fellow sailors.

Phil Burgess, left, takes his new 34-foot power catamaran, It Is Well, above, out into the Chesapeake Bay for a run, easing past reminders of his former sailing life. His sailboat, Happy Days, is on the market.