The sailboat plowed through long gray swells, the wind carrying spray the length of the black hull and dousing men in slickers working on deck. In the cockpit, the white-bearded skipper studied the instrument panel before him--liquid crystal diodes shining in the dusk, the digits denoting wind and boat speeds, and variations in course--instruments designed for long ocean races.

The boat was sailing in the Chesapeake Bay. While the navigator ate supper below, the skipper-- an experienced sailor fascinated by electronics of navigation--brought the boat too close Cove Point. When he looked up he could plainly see fish traps spread menacingly in the shallows.

He spun the wheel. The prow turned to windward, the headsail whipping across the mast; the boom swung heavily. They gathered speed, moving away from land, and for a moment seemed out of danger. Then the keel dragged bottom, bringing a cry of dismay from the crew struggling for balance on the wet, canted deck. The boat lurched to a halt, and the skipper shouted, "Ground!" --one of the most dreaded words in sailing.

Running Tide, 61 feet and 52,000 pounds of classic aluminum racing sloop, with a 13-year history of grand ocean campaigns, was stuck in the mud. Each wave lifted and then dropped her onto the recently modified, $30,000 keel; the maiden Genoa-- a stitched Mylar headsail worth $8,000--billowed and strained ineffectually. The crew would be ridiculed for this mistake, and for their hubris: believing that a grand dame of sailing with a lot of expensive renovation could compete.

This was the beginning of the 1983 Annapolis-

to-Newport Race, but it could have been any

of dozens of popular ocean races held every

year on both coasts of America, physically

and emotionally grueling contests that re quire as much commitment as any amateur sport, and probably more money. Sailing has its own language and its own ethic. The dynamics of ocean racing, lost on a general public that sees only a group of men on a deck in a sunlit sea, are subtle, complicated and often devastating to the individual sailor unable to keep pace with the crew. A race involves risk and reward; the outcome depends upon the boat, the crew and that ineffable quality, luck.

Running Tide's crew--17 men and one woman-- rushed on deck to help get the boat off the shoal. The competition was strung out down the bay, toward Norfolk, the sails faintly luminous in the failing light. They included Cayenne, Tide's chief rival, almost half an hour ahead.

Ocean races lasting for days are often won by mere minutes, and Running Tide had already given up time at the start. She had crossed the line early and was therefore forced to go back and cross again. In addition, she had performed disappointingly upwind during the first four hours of the race, while the crew struggled to discover the secret of the new keel. Now the ebbing tide could well leave the boat stranded on the shoal.

At best, the grounding was an embarrassment to the navigator, a retired surgeon named Ray Brown, 62, and to the skipper, Al Van Metre, 57, whose personal stake in Running Tide's success was enormous. Both men took responsibility for the incident, but the entire crew was affected. Ocean racing crews are often driven beyond the bounds of ordinary human endeavor, and operate on a unique blend of enthusiasm, talent and a sense of community. Continued mishaps can destroy that cohesiveness. Few mistakes are more demoralizing than lodging on a shoal--the sickening feeling of suddenly impeded flight, unimaginable while a boat is underway, followed by premonitions of doom.

Even if Tide got free, her keel would be scarred, and perhaps twisted. The crew would have to overcome the psychological blows of a poor start, a baffling new design, and this humiliation. More than one crew member thought the race was already over for them, that Tide would spend the next six hours aground and then, when the tide returned, sneak back into Annapolis in darkness. "Everybody forward!" Van Metre announced, as calm as a man ordering lunch at a McDonald's drive-in. A dozen people massed in the prow, tipping the boat forward, but it still rose and fell in its alluvial groove.

"Put up the storm chute!"

The bowman leaped through the forward hatch, and heaved up a blue sailbag containing a heavy- weather spinnaker. Other crewmen hoisted the long aluminum pole that helped keep the spinnaker aloft while one crewman held the spinnaker sheet, the line used to fly the sail. The afterguy--a heavy sheet attached to the pole-- and the spinnaker sheet were wrapped about barrel drums, and tightened with cranks mounted on the deck. A furious racheting filled the air as crewmen, sometimes called "deck apes," fell on the crank arms. The spinnaker ballooned crimson against the sky, a clear signal to the world that Tide was in trouble, using a downwind chute in an upwind race!

The boat heeled hard to port. As the deck slanted precariously, the crew clung to the life lines and to one another, cursing, calling encouragement to the wind and to that inanimate craft below their feet, on which many of them had spent their most exciting, satisfying hours.

The keel bumped along the bottom.

"Trim!" called the tailor, gripping the spinnaker sheet and manipulating the sail while the crew turned the cranks.

The sail tightened about its bubble of wind. The keel bumped, hung again, pulled free at last. The crew's cheer quickly drowned in the scramble to get the spinnaker down and a new Genoa raised, part of the unending change of sets that is the theater of ocean sailing.

The watch complete, half the crew went below. The tailor sat on the edge of his berth and stared at the "sole" --Tide's polished flooring--a plate of barbecued chicken on his lap. Neither he nor his mates spoke. In the smack of waves against the starboard bow he heard the repetitious voice of failure. It was extremely doubtful that they could make up the lost time; Running Tide, it seemed, was washed up as an ocean racer.