ALL FIVE OF US were up on the bridge deck just beginning to relax, deciding that we really could handle this embarrassingly lavish yacht too modestly called a trawler, when someone said, "My God, WHAT is THAT?"

From a distance it looked like the Washington monument on its side, effortlessly slicing straight south--at us--through the Chesapeake Bay at roughly 50 miles an hour. It seemed to grow in size by the second, spitting out black soot into a cloudless sky, turning gunboat gray as it rapidly approached on an obvious collision course. We were a motley crew of one old salt, one experienced sailboater, two novice sailors and one landlubber. We did not need a crisis, yet all seemed extraordinarily willing to command.

Speculation from the crew: "A destroyer." "A heavy cruiser." "My God, it's BIG." "Let's get the hell outa here."

Then the arguments: "Will it pass in front of us or behind us?" "In front." "Behind." "Head for shore." I mashed the throttle to the dash and headed due east, out of harm's way. The pride of the U.S. Navy, whatever it was, passed 200 yards astern. "Boy! Is that fast!" "They look like they're having a good time." "Probably a bunch of plebes from the academy out for a ride." "My God, look at THAT!"

The plebes had left us a calling card, a bearded wave from the monster's wake that would put gale conditions in the Falkland Islands to shame. It was headed right at our stern at a speed not unlike that of its creator. Surely this was a new weapon, a ship that need only pass close to its enemies to sink them. Helpful thoughts from the crew: "Gotta take it head on." "Can we outrun it?" "I'm going below." "My God, it's BIG!"

We took the wave head on, spinning all 33 feet and 9 tons of fiberglass, stainless steel and teak around for a frontal assault not a moment too soon. "Hold on to something that won't break off." See TRAWLER, Page 2, Col. 1 TRAWLER, From Page 1

We must have looked like a porpoise at Marineland breaking the surface, up, up, up into the air, then straight down into the blue. A second, but smaller wave followed, then calm seas again, clear water, the gunboat by this time too far out of sight to have known if we survived.

An earlier phone conversation with the experienced sailor--he still clinging to a railing--flashed through my mind:

Me: "This will be great! Since when do you get to act like a rich yachtie? This will be plush, just a quick jump across the bay to Oxford. You'll love it!"

He: "You ever drive one of these things?"

Me: "Listen, it's like driving a '52 Buick, one lever is for forward, neutral and reverse, the other lever is for slow or fast. And then there's the wheel. Think of dinner at the Robert Morris Inn, our own private yacht tied up at the dock."

He thought about that and agreed to go. We had both reasoned for some time that the good life on the water has too long been the exclusive province of those who don't need to ask how much it costs. We knew that what the rich have can be rented. This 33-foot trawler on which we spent a luxurious weekend cost each traveler less than a hotel room for one night in a major city--$80. For a week-long or mid-week charter the costs can get down to about $50 per person per day including food and fuel. For that kind of money you don't have to be wealthy to enjoy the countless water highways that have made the Chesapeake Bay the best cruising area in the nation. A trip up the Chester River, for example, would convince anyone:

From the deck you can see sheets of green farmland stretching miles into the distance, there a farmer with a six-wheel Ford digging deep into the sandy muck of the Eastern Shore flatlands. Around the bend is a large brick Georgian estate with a widow's walk. It is more than 200 years old and faces the water, as most of these grand spreads do, gobbling up thousands of feet of shoreline, far from the nearest road. .

Or, on hot muggy nights you might find a cool breeze off Hobbs Island in the Magothy River, and dance together with dozens of other boats, a fleet tethered to anchor lines swaying in unison as the music of the breeze shifts them. Sometimes the crews row over to each other in tippy dinghies to offer cocktails and sea stories. Later, they lie out on the deck, staring straight up at another sea--of innumerable stars unseeable near city lights.

Yachties have been escaping to these seaside wonders in increasing numbers since fiberglass made it affordable to the minions a few economic notches below J. P. Morgan Jr. But there have been problems with their boats. Sailboats take forever to get anywhere. A simple trip from Annapolis to Oxford is pushing it--in many cases wind lovers are looking at 10 hours of frying in the summer sun while praying for a break in the doldrums that have given the bay a reputation for "light air." Powerboats have never been a civilized alternative. Many crash, bang and bump their way through even the smallest seas, sending waves of pain through deckhands whose kidneys are thrust up into their throats at every thud. Some powerboats are also wildly expensive to feed. Fast twin-engine cruisers can drink two gallons of fuel a minute, making long passages on the bay a once-a-summer binge.

The alternative to these extremes that has become popular in the last decade is called a trawler. Forget visions of Norwegian fishing boats, these are modern pleasure boats--deep, wide fiberglass vessels that offer the stability associated with sailboats and a bit of the speed that made powerboats popular. They are outrageously economical, often sipping a third of a gallon an hour of diesel fuel. They cruise at about eight to 10 knots an hour, fast enough to get you almost anywhere you want to go on the bay in a single day, and with their Queen Mary bow sections they slice through the roughest seas the bay can offer with hardly more than an occasional shudder. They are the Airstreams of the waterways--a kindly ride, enough room for a party and all the comforts of a condo. Even your grandmother would feel secure in one.

Because the rich folks who own these $75,000 to $200,000 barges can take advantage of tax killings by operating them as businesses, many trawlers are now available on the bay for charter. Nearly all are offered in immaculate condition, stocked with food, ice and beer if you wish, and even available with a captain should you need one. Below the flying bridge, which may accomodate six or more adventurers perched high above the water, is the main salon with another steering station protected from weather, a ship-to-shore VHF radio, a galley with refrigerator, four-burner stove and oven, and a dinette for at least six, which converts to a double berth. The floors are teak parquet.

Farther down into the hull behind locking doors are two more cabins, one fore and one aft. Each of these cabins sleeps at least two, often in double berths, and offers a completely private "head" with pressurized hot and cold water and a shower. All this is in a typical 33-foot trawler. If you are thinking of a larger party, say eight to 12 people, you will want something bigger, perhaps 40 or 42 feet, and you may get air conditioning, a freezer and more space in the staterooms. On a cost-per-person basis, larger is not necessarily more expensive.

Our trawler did not have air conditioning, a washer/dryer or an icemaker, as some do, but for all aboard it was the most luxurious boat anyone had ever been on. We were determined to make the rest of the weekend delightful, despite the brush with the Navy.

To cut an hour off our time to Oxford we slipped into Knapps Narrows at the south end of Tilghman Island, a course that would avoid going all the way around the island. At the highway drawbridge there, with our bow inches from the girders, someone shouted to us: "It's closed. Won't be open today."

We were sitting in a channel a foot or so wider than the boat was long. The channel itself was lined with very expensive boats a captain would not want to hit. Other large boats were piling up behind us. This was beginning to look like a traffic jam on the Bay Bridge. The experienced sailor at the helm insisted on handling this himself--left full rudder, two inches forward; right full rudder, two inches back, and so on, and so on, and so on. It was like trying to park a Mack truck in a space big enough for a Honda. All the while I was making it worse giving advice he did not need: "Watch it now, not too far . . . easy on the throttle . . . okay, hit reverse . . ." Things were not looking good for a harmonious weekend.

A couple hours later we rolled into Oxford's quaint little harbor and parked our yacht.. At least 300 people sitting in a nearby restaurant watched us try to put a 33-foot boat into a 34-foot space. After that everyone abandoned ship for a double scotch in the air-conditioned bar. Later, friendships were bolstered at The Robert Morris Inn, where the maitre d' explained that those without ties and jackets--we looked as if we had just gotten off a boat--would be allowed to eat in the back dining room with the rest of the yachties. There we seemed in good company, with a least one senator at a nearby table. We spoke of fair winds and clear skies for the morning run up the Tred Avon River.

The next morning the skies were clear but the winds were howling. As we powered up the river, a low groaning commenced from the engine compartment. "A transmission going." "Might be a propeller shaft bushing." "What happens if the engine stops?"

What would happen if the engine stopped was that we would become a leaning tower of pleasure boat along the shoreline, thanks to the wind. I began to worry about our $500 deposit. We turned around in hopes of getting back to Oxford before some part of the boat beat itself to death.

Nearing Oxford again, the landlubber put her hand on a thick and wildly vibrating strap that held up the sun awning. The groaning stopped. "Hey," she said, pleased. 'Hey, hey, hey," says the crew. We head out to the bay.

There we were met by head-on seas plummeting down the bay on a North wind. As the bow rose to the challenge of each oncoming roller, a spray like Niagara drenched the boat. But the three-bladed prop the size of Toyota tire deep below and that trusty 120-horsepower diesel churned us back towards Galesville.

"We're gonna make it," announced the landlubber, now beginning to consider herself something of a seaperson. "Like a tugboat," said the somewhat-experienced sailboater. We had changed--torn apart by adversity in the beginning of this two-day cruise, and now found ourselves closer, tested, a group.

Several hours later we made a left turn into the West River and headed proudly for the marina. The dedicated sailboaters aboard looked literally down from the flying bridge at the sloops as we passed them by, chugging away.

It was great adventure. And it remains one of the plushest ways afloat to get away from the mobs parading down U.S. 50 in search of salt water and sand. There was certainly enough collective boating experience aboard our trawler to handle whatever we came up against, but a lot of would-be trawlerites know nothing about mid-channel markers, anchoring techniques and the tricky business of docking a single-screw motor yacht in a stiff crosswind. Some suggestions:

First, if a totally unhassled escape is your idea of a vacation, hire a captain. Most charter agencies offer them for what amounts to beer money when the fee is split among all those aboard. They will guide you skillfully and knowledgeably to the best discos ashore or the most isolated coves. They will tell your children sea tales, give everyone who wants it a turn at the wheel and identify all the mysterious goings on about the bay.

Second, invite someone along who does know a mid-channel marker from a crab pot. That person does not need to have experience with trawlers. Hundreds of people who charter these vessels do quite well if familiar with typical bay navigation techniques and the operation of much smaller powerboats or sailboats. They will be thoroughly checked-out by the chartering agency before the lines are cast off.

Third, learning how to do it yourself is not like prepping for the Graduate Record Exams. Take a free boating course offered year-round by the U.S. Power Squadron or the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Then, for a minimal fee, some charter agencies will give you a day's worth of hands-on instruction, with practice anchoring, docking and navigating.

Finally, pick a chartering firm that offers a captained learn-to-sail cruise. Pack up all your friends and food and set off for a week of personalized instruction that still leaves the worries to the man behind the wheel. Afterward you'll be able to charter from the Carribean to Alaska with most firms, few questions asked.

However you decide to do it, don't wait to make reservations. A lot of trawlers are already booked into August. Hundreds of new yachties already have plans to sidle up to freighters patiently anchored in the bay waiting for the coal docks in Baltimore to find space for them. The yachties will wave to the crews of Greek, Italian, Dutch and Belgian ships, spend a night at Harborplace in downtown Baltimore, get a very close look at a nuclear submarine being boarded by Annapolis cadets, watch spinnakers fly as scores of sailboats round a mark during a race, swim in clean fresh water up the Sassafras River, far from sea nettles, beachcomb on the sands of uninhabited islands and think a lot about how soon they can do this again.