SHORTLY BEFORE NOON ON A CRISP black-hulled 46-foot sloop named Donnybrook nosed out of the sun- washed waters of the Chesapeake Bay into the Atlantic.

She was bound for Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, some 1,400 miles south -- a seasonal migrant from the bay's autumn-chilled waters to the tropical promise of a Caribbean winter. Aboard was a pick-up crew of virtual strangers delivering a vessel largely unknown to them to a place most had never been. They were making "the passage south," and in the surly violence of the fall Atlantic, they knew, it could be brutal. Each autumn boats and crews are lost to storms of awesome power whirling north from the equatorial regions. November is not the best time to leave.

Donnybrook, however, was no fair-weather craft. Designed by a legendary naval architect named German Frers, she was built of welded aluminum and bore the flush-deck profile and beefy hull of an ocean racer. She had cost close to $250,000 when built eight years ago. There were only four boats like her in the world.

Launched with the name "Destination," she had been raced hard from Newport to the Caribbean, then sold last year to Washington businessman James Muldoon, who sewed shamrocks on her sails and painted her yellow hull black with green stripes.

Muldoon raced her in the Chesapeake and planned to race and charter her in the Caribbean. But first he had to get her there, supplied for the season.

As she heeled off Cape Henry under a freshening breeze, Donnybrook was in less than racing trim. Her bow compartment was heavy with 23 sails and a 70-horsepower outboard motor. Her port deck was crowded with a 400-poud rubber-and-fiberglass dinghy. Her teak-lined main cabin looked like the movie set for "Das Boot": crammed with cartons of supplies, extra batteries and crates of spare parts. Net hammocks of onions and oranges swung beside pipe frame berths.

Above, in the cockpit, eyeing the fading shore, stood the delivery crew, an improbable quintet recruited from the boat addicts of Chesapeake Bay:

Linda Stearns: 36, of Edgewater, Md., the skipper, a stocky, self-effacing woman with a leprechaun grin and a genius for sail trim. A California-born sailmaker, charter boat manager and nautical entrepreneur, she had crewed for years on offshore racing boats, and during the 1980 America's Cup trials had designed and cut sails for the 12-meter Clipper. But this was her first long-distance delivery.

Pat Ewing: 19, of Silver Spring, a blond, muscular youth who six months before had never trod a deck and now kept Donnybrook sailing. A one-time near-dropout, he had found a maintenance job on the boat a passport to a different world. In this school, he was Phi Beta Kappa. But this was his first real ocean voyage.

Doug Wilson: 47, of Arnold, Md., the navigator, a lanky, mustachioed boat builder, carpenter and craftsman, given to irreverent literary allusions, restoring harpsichords and rowing with the Annapolis Rowing Club. He had owned his own ketch and made many coastal passages. But this was his first trip to the Caribbean.

Carl Love: 58, of McLean, Va., a chain-smoking, bespectacled patent attorney who sailed his own boat on the bay and had taught himself celestial navigation from a book in two weeks. But he had never been to sea.

Ken Ringle, 44, of Washington, an ocean-addicted journalist who had crewed on three offshore deliveries but was chosen more for availability than experience. He had never met the skipper.

We were, we decided, a decidedly odd lot: evidence enough, perhaps, that only the mad take to sea in November. But we dismissed any apprehensions: the ocean sparkled with promise.

Most vessels southbound to the Virgins motor through the Intracoastal Waterway to Morehead City, N.C., before putting to sea. Though time- consuming, that route bypasses the violent waters off Cape Hatteras where the Labrador Current and Gulf Stream converge with storm- churning intensity, and where some 900 shipwrecks testify to the imprudent mariner's fate.

Donnybrook's mast, however, was too tall for one bridge on the waterway, so we went directly "outside," planning to work well east before a seasonal northeaster could drive us down on the Hatteras shoals. Then, 800 miles offshore, we would swing south, picking up the easterly trade winds south of Bermuda for the final run to Tortola.

The critical part would be crossing the Gulf Stream, where an ordinary low pressure area can undergo what William J. Kotsch in Weather for the Mariner calls "explosive intensification" into something called a "Hatteras storm" with "hurricane-force winds that generate tremendous ocean waves" and "blow without appreciable change in direction or speed . . . for 48 to 72 hours." We had no wish to meet one of those.

A cursory weather check appeared to show a meteorological window. A small low- pressure area moving up the Appalachians was still inland, and we had two days to get east of its northeasterly track. Such, at least, was my rather hazy theory. I had never sailed off the coast in November, and with the sun warm and Donnybrook riding gracefully under a 12-knot wind, I shrugged off weather worries. There was enough to learn about the boat.

Carl, Doug and I were basically cruising sailors, attuned to relatively simple boats rather than the high-tech speed machine on which we rode. Where the typical sloop might have two halyards for hoisting its sails, Donnybrook had eight. Where oher boats might have four winches for adjusting sail tension, Donnybrook had 13. From mast to cockpit ran a bewildering assortment of multicolored lines, secured by a maze of cleats, pulley blocks and other arcane bits of nautical hardware. There was even a hydraulic system to alter the rake of the mast, the height of the boom, and the flatness of the mainsail.

"This rig is insane!" protested Doug, tugging his mustache. "You need six or eight people just to alter course."

"Don't worry," said Linda, "most of this racing stuff we won't even use. This is going to be a simple sail."

I hoped so. The November Atlantic would be challenge enough. Others shared the same unspoken thought. When twilight found Donnybrook out of sight of land, Pat joined me at the helm, eyeing the vacant ocean and the distant, featureless horizon.

"Not much out here, is there?" he said. Then he went below to join the others.

The boat was rolling sligtly in a beginning swell from the southeast. A scattering of cirrus clouds was moving in. Then I looked astern and felt the hackles on my neck rise.

The western horizon was cloaked from north to south in an immense triangular cloud of deep, dark gray. It climbed at least 60,000 feet to a dull point, backlighted by the crimson of fading day. And through two holes near its base, the setting sun shone blood red, as through the eyeholes in an executioner's mask. It was the most forbidding sky I'd ever seen.

The barometer didn't begin falling until the following morning, and even then we barely noticed it. Instead of too much wind, the first night at sea had held too little, leaving us with weak, fluky breezes and flapping sails.

About 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, however, the wind crept up to eight knots under thickening clouds. From there it built throughout the day, backing to the east and forcing us to tack into the growing seas.

This slammed the boat around a little, shaking loose occasional loosely stowed items below and triggering queasiness in the weak-kneed. Doug Wilson and I stood our watches but retired as soon as possible to our comforting bunks, knowing it would pass. The others remained cheerfully unaffected. Skipper Stearns, who insisted on doing most of the cooking and cleaning as well as taking her turn at the wheel, dished up balogna sandwiches and talked of frying chicken.

Carl Love, troubled with uncertain balance on deck, camped happily below for hours at the navigation desk, charting our position.

Pat Ewing, restless with energy, shared the cooking and cleaning, mucked out the bilges and spent hours at the wheel in the spell of a Sony Walkman loaded with punk.

From my upper bunk on the port side, I gingerly sampled an apple from the hammock swinging beside me and felt the slam and surge of the sea just inches away.

The weather was deteriorating, but the crew seemed to get on together. Carl and I had discovered a mutual fascination with the World War II battle of the Atlantic. Doug and I shared an affection for the madcap prose of Tom Robbins. Doug and Carl conversed in the cryptic argot of navigators, and Linda drew us all to her by assuming thankless chores and by her feel for sail trim.

Only Pat, Donnybrook's hired hand, remained a bit of a mystery, lost in his music and seldom speaking or smiling while tackling mechanical headaches such as a failed knotmeter or a recalcitrant thermostat in the diesel engine. The night before, on watch, it was obvious that Donnybrook was much more to Pat than a job."I really messed up in high school," he said. "Drugs, girls, cars . . . I thought all that was cool. I just kind of checked out of classes altogether . . . There's a lot of stuff I never gave myself a chance to learn.

"But, see, I know that now, and I'm putting it right. Aside from my family, this boat's the first thing I ever had really going for me in my life. I'm going to make it count."

By 5 p.m. Tuesday, the wind had risen to 20 knots and Donnybrook was heeling sharply through whitecapped seas, clearly straining from too much sail. Frowning at the thickening clouds, Linda ordered us to tie a reef in the mainsail to reduce its size and, an hour later, to switch to a smaller jib.

The ever-colder wind, however, kept mounting as darkness deepened, outpacing our efforts to shorten sail. We took another reef in the mainsail, then switched to the tiny storm jib, and sometime after midnight reefed the main a third time.

Each operation seemed to take forever, dragging us from our bunks groggy with fatigue into a night less and less forgiving. Pat clambered uncomplaining each time to the precarious, pitching bow to haul down the jib. Linda stood, steady and unruffled on the wave-washed foredeck, shouting directions over the wind to the ham-handed rest of us as we groped among the winches and halyards.

When we readied the main for its final reef, the wind was up to 35 knots and gusting higher. I had the wheel, trying to read the compass and steer an accurate course while throwing up over the side. The reefing process involved passing a line through a hole in the trailing edge of the sail that was too high for any of us to reach. Just as the dimensions of that problem dawned on each of us, Pat unhooked his safety harness and sprang up onto the sea-slick boom. One tiny slip and he'd vanish forever. We'd never find him overboard in the darkness.

Leaning into the belly of the sail as 10-foot seas hissed below, he reached up and slipped the line through. Then Linda and Doug snugged the sail tight.

Groggy and chilled, my sweaters and thermal underwear soaked beneath my foul- weather gear, I stumbled below to find proof that adversity is often laced with farce.

Sometime during my watch, as the wind and waves slammed us from one tack to another, a plastic gallon bottle of Wesson Oil had flown loose and ruptured on the cabin floor, coating every inch of footing below and turning even our suction- soled foul-weather boots into banana peels beneath our feet. After sliding the length of the cabin in an abortive effort to shed my boots, I crawled fully dressed into my bunk and fell asleep.

The sound that woke me 45 minutes later was one every sailor dreads: a loud metallic ring like the plucking of a giant guitar string. All I could think was that we had lost a shroud, one of the critical side supports of the mast.

We slipped and scrambled through the Wesson Oil and up the ladder into the cockpit where Doug was flashing a light along the spray-washed rigging. It looked solid. Then, halfway up the mast, we saw the real problem.

The mainsail had ripped loose from the groove that held it to the mast. It was starting to flog and would soon rip itself to pieces.

"We've got to get it down!" yelled Linda. But as soon as any tension was released from the halyard, the flogging sail could lash out, possibly severing rigging or sweeping someone overboard. Snapping our safety harnesses from shackle to shackle along the deck, we made our way to the mast, freed the main halyard and ducked.

With a flapping roar, the sail bellied away from the mast, spilling its wind and streaming behind the boat like an immense kite tail. After a long moment it settled into the water, and I hauled it aboard.

Donnybrook slowed and rode easier without it, and we moved groggily below with the uncertain comfort that now, at least, we would get some rest. With only the storm jib up, there was no more sail to shorten.

Our future, however, was unclear. The wind was now 40 knots and rising, the barometer at 29.90 inches and falling. We were 750 miles off the Virginia coast, and the warm spray told us we were finally in the Gulf Stream.

But the Stream, like the south wind, was carrying us north toward stormier waters. How we'd get out of it with our mainsail gone we weren't quite sure: Donnybrook, with the perverse priorities of racing boats, carried 23 highly specialized sails aboard, but no spare main.

As I clambered into the cockpit at 2 a.m. Thursday, I grew dimly aware, through the howl of the wind and my sleep-fogged mind, that Donnybrook was moving much faster than I had realized in the relative quiet below.

The wind was now blowing, the gauge said, at 58 knots, only six knots below hurricane speed.

Pat Ewing, his white foul- weather suit shining wetly in the compass glow, stood with legs spread, fighting the wheel as huge seas steamed down from astern, heaving the boat skyward and sending her surfing down their forward slope into the wind- lashed darkness.

"We really got the pedal to the metal now," Pat shouted as I clipped my safety line to the backstay. "I'm not sure how much more she can take. You got just 20 degrees of compass. Steer left of that and you'll jibe the storm jib. We've already blown fittins off that. We can't lose any more. Steer too far right and she'll broach. If she goes over in these seas, I don't know if she'll come up."

I nodded and reached for the helm. It was like taking the wheel of a careering car. The weight of my hand alone skewed the boat to starboard, side on to the advancing seas. An enormous wave lurched out of the darkness, rose above us and thundered over the starboard side, slamming the boat far over, tearing me from the wheel and filling the cockpit before it rumbled on, leaving us stunned and wallowing.

"DON'T DO THAT!" yelled Pat, wrenching the wheel back, " . . . don't do that!"

"Got it," I said, as the sea sloshed out the cockpit drains. "I won't do that." He stood with me a minute while I got the feel of the helm, then disappeared down the hatch.

After three days at sea, we were down to one-man watches, husbanding each other's strength and taking each wave as it came. Wednesday had been a fatigue-rimmed blur, leavened only by slapstick scenes played out on our oil-slick cabin floor.

It had begun with Donnybrook's batteries nearly drained. Engine problems had prevented a recharge, and without them we had neither radio power nor navigation instruments. Wilson had steered most of a violent, starless Tuesday night without even a compass light, guided only by the feel of the rising wind and waves. Dawn, however, found Donnybrook dodging impressively through a confused seascape of rain squalls and 20-foot waves, and Pat labored tirelessly to rework the diesel's cooling system. As we cheered the engine's cough back to life, we debated our next move. It was foolish, Linda decided, to waste time and energy beating back to Norfolk to fix the main. The wind was clocking westward, and by noon the barometer had bottomed out at 29.50 inches of mercury, indicating the storm center was passing west of us. The worst, we decided, was over.

It was Doug Wilson who read our destiny on the cabin floor. Slithering amid the oily clutter in a search for a stray boot, the madcap navigator happened on a coupon from a roll of paper towels.

"This is it !" he shrieked. "It says here we've won a Bermuda vacation fantasy!"

Bermuda, 800 miles to the south, lay dead on our course to Tortola. Even without a mainsail, it made more sense to go there for repairs. Around 3:30 p.m., when the wind shifted northerly, we groggily turned south with it.

Now 12 hours later, with the boat charging through winds and seas higher than any of us had ever known, there was no time to second- guess that decision. The storm was too relentless. You couldn't see the waves, but you could feel them hissing past like locomotives, vast dark shapes in the night.

Most came with the wind from astern, visible only as a torrent of white when they broke and boiled down on us, grabbing the rudder and sending the boat plunging ahead on the edge of control. But every 15 minutes a maverick rocketed in from an angle, slamming us over with tons of force, sweeping the deck and filling the cockpit. You could learn to anticipate the following seas, but not the mavericks.

I steered for six hours. It didn't seem that long, for an ocean storm focuses the mind wonderfully, and I was pleased to be no longer seasick. Only much later, when I finally pulled off my leather gloves, did I discover the bleeding blister at the base of my thumb. I didn't even notice the sun coming up.

But about 7:30 a.m. Linda poked her head out the hatch and gasped "My God!" and for the first time, I looked around and saw what the ocean had become.

It is never easy to judge the exact size of waves. Once in a storm off Cape Fear, N.C., a friend and I realized we could use the boat's depth sounder to compute the difference between the depth registered in the trough of a wave and that shown as the boat reached its crest. Those waves were 18 to 20 feet, about the size Donnybrook had sailed through Wednesday.

But these waves a morning later, moving in deep waters beyond our instrument's reach, were like nothing Linda or I had ever seen.

The largest easily topped our second set of mast spreaders, which stood 40 feet above the water, higher than most three-story buildings. But it was not their height alone that was impressive. It was their mass: they hulked two full city blocks in thickness at the base. They moved in perfect orchestration, a quarter to a half-mile from crest to crest, and they stretched evenly as far as we could see from horizon to horizon, less like mountains on the march than mountain ranges. Their vast, even slopes were streaked white with spray, and the sea itself between them was not only white but smooth, swept clean of splash and ripple by the relentless wind.

When those waves moved beneath us, lifting Donnybrook to their crests, we look downhill, it seemed, to the horizon. All I could think of was a ski slope -- powder- blown and endless.

The awe of such a moment redefines life's bottom lines. If we had known confusion and discomfort and fear to get there, if we had risked our pride or our dignity or our very lives in blundering our way to where we were, all we knew now was humility, and wonder and an overwhelming sense of privilege. No price of admission would have been too high to experience that blinding, sun-bright, thundering ocean dawn. None. It was the Sistine Chapel and Magnificat of mornings, the ultimate cathedral.

We stood a long time, mar- veling at the majesty of that seascape. Finally Linda reached for the wheel."Let me take it," she said. "I want to remember this."

I left her standing braced there, in her red storm suit and blue Purina Chows hat, and groped my way below, blinking, to make some tea. One by one, Carl and Doug and Pat awoke, went on deck and returned in awe, then manic exhilaration. We took turns standing tethered at the bow while Donnybrook surfed down those incredible seas, but I was dazed and numb from the night and soon crawled gratefully to my bunk and unconsciousness. I slept most of the day and when I woke the texture of the seascape had changed. The waves were just as high -- higher, Linda thought -- and steeper, and the wind gauge appeared stuck at exactly 45 knots where it remained fixed another day and a half.

But the orchestration was gone. Thursday morning had been like a coda to some vast oceanic symphony. Now it was just so many beautiful sounds.

The waves came in sets of three, stacked and riding crosswise on each other, and the mavericks returned to fill the cockpit. But we were used to them now: we knew we and Donnybrook could handle them. The barometer was on a steady, gradual climb and we knew -- this time we really knew -- the worst was over.

We caught up on sleep. Carl took sun sights. I peeled off the boots and wet clothes I'd worn nonstop for four days. Doug attacked the cabin floor with cleaner, reducing somewhat the suspense of our bucket-bearing trips across its oiled surface -- the toilet had broken Wednesday in mid-storm.

We were riding high now, in a southbound eddy of the Gulf Stream, and with the sunny, warmer days, it was easy to forget we were still in a gale. Only the storm jib reminded us, periodically popping one of its shackles.

Saturday the wind finally dropped below 30 knots, and Linda decided we could risk adding a second jib. We were nearing Bermuda's calmer waters (we told ourselves we could smell the palm trees) but just where we were, we weren't quite certain. Somewhere nearby lurked the coral reefs that have wrecked Bermuda-bound ships for 400 years, but our electronic navigation aids were useless -- we were off the applicable charts. Carl and Doug struggled t compute a succession of sun and star sights, but Sunday night when we needed stars the moon was too bright to see them, and Carl didn't trust a sighting on the moon alone. Monday morning, they came to the cockpit with melancholy news: we had overshot the island by 35 miles.

But just as we swung the boat around, spirits drooping like the now nearly windless sails, the sea around us erupted in splashes and whistles.

"Porpoises!" yelled Doug. And as they would later, during a misty landfall at Tortola after a rollicking week's passage from Bermuda, schools of them thronged around the hull, leaping beside the bow, torpedoing under the keel, and reminding us of the gifts that are always the sea's to give.

We were never depressed again. And when we tied up at Bermuda's customs dock the next morning, and watched a magenta dawn seep softly around the gray fluff of trade wind clouds onto the pastel symmetry of St. George's harbor, a strange wave of energy seemed to pour through the boat.

We had plnned no special arrival, but as we folded our sails and consumed with alarming rapidity a breakfast of lime juice, brown sugar and Mount Gay Rum, that outrageous dawn outlined the nearby masts and palm trees and Donnybrook's tape system surged with the music from "Chariots of Fire."

Suddenly we found ourselves laughing and hugging each other like school kids, bonded by prayerful -- nearly tearful -- gratitude for all we'd been through, and all we'd seen. And by the wonder and joy and triumph, as Linda said later, "not just of being there and alive but of being SO alive" -- alive in a way and to a degree that most of the world will never know.

According to Bermuda Harbor Radio, four boats were lost or abandoned en route to Bermuda in the 13 days before Donnybrook arrived Nov. 23, 1983. A fifth, a 60-foot ketch named Windemere, was dismasted and limped into St. George under power. A sixth, an experimental catamaran captained by Jacques Cousteau, lost its mast and nearly foundered between Norfolk and Bermuda. It was, according to a Bermuda Harbor Radio official, "a fairly typical November" for the passage south.