STEVENSVILLE, MD. -- Spring is approaching on the Chesapeake Bay, and the sailors -- and sailors at heart -- among us are daydreaming of the refreshing breezes at dawn, those wonderful days when the reality of K Street is a vague recollection, the evenings of gentle rocking and priceless sunsets. Soon, when they get out on the water, they'll dream of full sails forever.

Ah, the life, to own a skipjack, tong for oysters and never again have to drive back on Route 50.

Even the powerboat owners, who spend their hours of relaxation slamming their stinkpots over each other's wakes, have a quixotic sense of the life of the waterman. They'll dream of reaping the bay's bounty and selling, rather than buying, crabs.

What none of them -- these weekend watermen -- thinks about is what Joe Sadler knows all about.

On a cold morning in January, just about the time the sailors of D.C. were turning off their alarm clocks, Joe Sadler was turning over the 453-cubic-inch Detroit diesel of his 41-foot boat. It was still dark, the weather was just the sort that inspired creation of the term "wind-chill factor," and Sadler was getting ready to work.

Sadler is 30 years old, a fourth-generation Kent Island waterman and president of the Maryland Clammers Association. He works year-round on the water, harvesting from the bottom a natural resource -- soft-shell clams -- that most Washington-area diners couldn't care less about. The market in nearby states for these clams, perhaps the bay's least-utilized resource, is soft, to say the least.

On this particular day, Sadler had an order from United Shellfish Co., in Grasonville, for 10 bushels of clams that most likely would end up in New England, where clams -- whether steamed or in chowder, fried or frittered -- are much more appreciated. Maryland trails only Maine and Massachusetts in clam production on the Atlantic Coast, but consumption is another matter. According to Brett Meyers, assistant manager of United Shellfish, "probably 95 percent of the clams go north."

So, there was Sadler, on the deck of the Kristy Ann, warming up the boat engine and starting up the Perkins diesel that runs the pump for the hydraulic clam dredge, while his father, Warren, got the heater in the small forward cabin going. Warren Sadler is a fishing charter captain most of the year and also has a small boat from which he tongs for oysters, "but it's frozen in," he noted, so he was going out with his son. In cold weather, it helps to have a second man.

As dawn broke, Joe Sadler left his dock at Love Point on the northern tip of Kent Island, and chugged out into the mouth of the Chester River. "We'll stay right here today; out there it would be rolling," he said, speaking of the bay itself. He was within sight of his leased slip at C.J. Langenfelder & Son, Inc., a construction company. In better weather he could be dredging an hour or more away.

Sadler's boat is equipped with depthfinder, radar and ship-to-shore, CB and automobile radios. "Gotta have music," noted Sadler, while listening to static over the noise of the engine.

But the most intriguing piece of equipment aboard is the escalator-like contraption on which the clams are brought up from the bottom. "Hydraulic clam dredge is the given name by the state," said Sadler.

It is 35-feet long and hangs horizontally along the starboard side of the boat when not in use. When it's time to dredge, the forward end is lowered to the bottom and five jets of water stir up the sand and mud, kicking clams onto the moving conveyor belt. At the other end of the belt, at the aft end of the boat, the clammer waits, taking bushels of legal-size (two-inch minimum) clams off the conveyor one at a time -- and at times each one comes awfully quickly.

Asked if the authorities check him for legal length, Sadler said, "Almost daily." On board or ashore, he was asked. "Both places," he said. Then, he paused, smiled and said, "I don't believe we'll see anybody out here today, though."

It was cold -- "the radio said 31 this morning," said Warren Sadler -- and breezy. Then he added, as if a degree below freezing might be considered comfortable, "but it's dropping." The Sadlers wore dark green rubber slickers with hoods and pants over heavy clothes and watch caps, plus rubber boots and rubber gloves.

Even with the gloves, it was quickly apparent, the extra man is handy. The Sadlers often worked together, but just as often one or the other was warming his hands over the exhaust of the pump engine.

Nevertheless, "as a job, clamming's got its benefits," said Joe Sadler. "In the summer, you're in by 9 with your 15 bushels {the legal limit} just when everybody's going to work."

The sand and mud from the bottom is washed off the belt as it moves up through the water, though at times the conveyor yields chunks of mud, rocks, small fish, an occasional razor clam, bottles and other prizes. "My brother has one of these rigs," said Warren Sadler, "and one time he dug up an Indian tomahawk in perfect condition. He took it over to Washington to the Smithsonian. They said it was a couple of hundred years old. Told him the tribe and everything."

Joe Sadler's hydraulic clam dredge is of about average length, he said, and can be used at "half that for water depth -- maximum." On this particular day he was working in about four and five feet of water (his boat draws three feet). Meanwhile, the boat was barely moving, probably at about the pace of a dog paddle, the engine turning at 750 RPM.

For the first couple of hours, he dredged about a bushel every 30 minutes, but around 10 o'clock, having shifted several hundred feet, and working back and forth in just inches more than three feet of water, he went from five to eight bushels rather quickly.

At 10:45 he had 10 heaping bushels. Clams are bought by volume, Sadler said, "a good round bushel. Within 24 hours it's below level, soon as it {the passage of time} gets the water out of them" and the shells tighten together.

By noon, he had loaded the clams in his pickup truck and driven them to the United plant in Grasonville. Maryland clammers are currently getting about $25 a bushel, down from about $30 last summer at peak demand. Maine clammers, who dig on the exposed mud flats by hand when the tide is out, are getting about $35 a bushel now, and have received as much as $70 at peak demand, but conditions are different.

"It's physically impossible to dig more than a couple of bushels on a tide," according to Jim Markos, Jr., general manager of Maine Shellfish Co., Inc., of Ellsworth, so Maine diggers don't gross as much Maryland clammers. Clam diggers, on the other hand, don't have the expense of a boat.

Sadler bought his boat, which was launched in 1973, for the motor and hull ("I've only been in it about a year and a half," he said) and rebuilt it. "Everything is custom," he said. "I do all my own work," and that includes constructing the hydraulic clam dredge. "I couldn't afford to pay $25 an hour every time I needed welding."

This is his fourth boat -- they keep getting bigger, he admitted -- and he has been working on the water full time "since I got out of high school. I used to come home from school and get in my boat and go oystering or crabbing." And he would work on the water summers.

"There are quite a few fellows (from Kent Island) my age that're working on the water. It's something that they're almost brought up into," he said.

And, as a note to those weekend watermen, "There's not too many fellows working on the water whose father's a banker," Sadler observed.

Back outside his home after the morning on the water, Joe Sadler's father said, "I was born and raised right here, and my father. And my grandfather, too." As for a fifth generation, Joe Sadler has two children, 11-year-old Joey and 5-year-old Kristin, and both go out with him at times. "She likes it more than he does," he said.

He has been president for "three, four years" of the Maryland Clammers Assn., which has "about 75 paid-up members out of about 150" licensed clammers in the state.

"The kind of license I have I can do anything -- oyster, clam, fish," said Sadler. Asked whether he ever actually does oyster or fish, he said, "I try not to. I don't mind oystering if I have to, but I'd rather stay with clams."

Two other boats went out of the Love Point docks that morning. One was larger than Sadler's, drawing more than four feet, and wouldn't have been able to go where Sadler went. The other was smaller and was just around a nearby point. Other than that, the water was clear, except for the water birds.

However, "if it's a good day," said Sadler, "the radio speakers never stop. Lots of boats are out then."

With everything right out there in the open, it doesn't seem that anybody could have any secrets. Sadler noted, however, that "everybody is secretive to a certain extent. I've never done it, but I've known people who've set out and waited for the other to come in" so the others wouldn't know where and how quickly they had reached their legal limit.

If somebody were to follow him around to take advantage of his knowledge, Sadler said, "Next time I'm not doing anything and they are, I'll just go up on them. Pay back." He grinned.

While Sadler wouldn't invade one of his fellow Chesapeake clammers' space, he is curious about his counterparts in New England.

"I blew a couple days one week" several years ago, he noted, and "decided I might as well take off the rest of the week. I came home, told my wife to pack and we got in the car and took off."

They drove to Ipswich, Mass., home of the famous Ipswich clams, and got as far as Portland, Maine.

"Never did find anyone digging clams. I asked at all the gas stations. They'd tell me to look here or there but I never found anyone."

STEAMED CLAMS

(4 servings)

In this area, soft-shell clams are used primarily for steaming, hence the common name "steamers." In New England, they also are used commonly for frying.

1 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 dozen soft-shell clams

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted

Use a pot (4 quart is good) large enough that it will not be more than 2/3 full of clams. Pour in the water, add salt and clams, cover and place on high heat. The water will come to a boil and steam the clams in about 6 minutes. Meanwhile, melt butter. The clams are done when they have opened up (discard those that don't open). Remove clams with tongs (they're hot) and carefully pour off broth, leaving behind the sand and grit. There should be 2-3 cups of broth (the clams will have contributed some juices) to be divided among the diners. Swish the clams around in the broth to remove any remaining sand, dip in melted butter and eat.

Variations: Instead of water, use beer, or half water-half dry white wine or dry vermouth for steaming liquid. Mash in a clove of garlic and/or chopped onion, peppercorns, tarragon, or any herbs or spices that appeal to you.

CLAM CHOWDER

(4 servings)

Soft-shell clams are not commonly used for chowder (quahogs and cherrystones are), but sometimes there are extras left over after a beer-and-steamers bash. Or, you can start from scratch.

1/2 cup water

24 soft-shell clams

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 small onion, chopped

1 stalk celery, chopped

1/4 teaspoon thyme

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1 bay leaf

3 cups milk

1 potato, diced

Add water, clams and salt to a large pot, cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Steam the clams about 6 minutes, or until they open (discard those that don't). Remove clams with tongs (they're hot) and pour broth into a bowl, taking care to leave behind the sand and grit. Remove clam bellies and add to broth. Clean necks and black film from remaining clam meat, thoroughly rinse clam meat, chop and add to broth. Rinse and dry pot, then heat 2 tablespoons butter. Add garlic and saute' for 2 to 3 minutes just until softened but not browned. Add onion, celery, thyme, pepper and bay leaf, saute' until onions are transluscent. Add reserved broth and clams. Stir in milk, potatoes, rest of butter and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

FRIED CLAMS

(4 servings)

These are not New Jersey fried clam strips. In fact, inasmuch as the majority of Chesapeake Bay clams are shipped north, they're truly real New England fried clams.

1 egg

5-ounce can evaporated milk

1 cup corn flour (available in health-food stores)

1 cup white flour

4 dozen shucked soft-shell clams

Vegetable oil for deep-frying

Beat egg and evaporated milk in a large bowl. Mix corn flour and white flour thoroughly in another large bowl. Drain excess liquid from shucked clams, dip them a half dozen at a time in the egg-milk mixture, then dredge in flour mixture. Spread on waxed paper and allow to dry for several minutes. Heat oil to 375 degrees and fry clams until golden brown (about 45 seconds). Remove clams, shaking oil from them as you lift them from the fryer. Serve with ketchup or tartar sauce.

To Shuck Clams

Use a clam knife, which is like a paring knife but has a blunt end and a softer blade. Hold the clam in the palm of your left hand (not too firmly; soft-shell clams break easily) with the hinge to the left and the neck toward you. Slip the blade into the clam next to the hinge at the end opposite the neck. With the tip up against the top shell, bring the knife all the way around over the neck to the other end of the hinge and remove top shell. The clam (neck, belly, meat) will be in the bottom shell. Bring the knife around the same way inside and against the bottom shell. Discard shells. Trim the neck off to about 1/4- 1/2 inch, pinch stub to remove black skin, getting the thin strip that trails down to the belly (this is not easy and takes practice), discard. Place shucked clams in colander under running cold water to rinse sand and grit.

To Purge Clams

Several methods of purging raw clams of sand and grit prior (particularly for frying and chowders) are advocated in cookbooks. In any case, sand and grit on the outside of the clams should be removed with running cold water and, if necessary, scrubbing.

The popular methods involve covering the clams in lightly salted water (1 tablespoon per gallon) and adding an irritant, either several tablespoons of vinegar or a tablespoon of corn meal per gallon. A half hour is said to do the job; in fact, overnight isn't long enough for particularly sandy clams. Instead, it is necessary to rinse them thoroughly when shucking, or swish steamers thoroughly in broth.

The best, and only truly effective, method for purging clams prior to shucking or steaming is to put them in a burlap bag, tie it tightly and hang it by a rope off a pier into salt water for a day or two. The clams will flush themselves and be beautifully clean inside and out.