THE SMILE of spring has filled the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries with sailing vessels of all sorts. But for a visidtor on a weekend outing, it can be disappointing to stand on the shore, wishing you, too, could laze in the sun to the sound of waves slapping the hull.

Fortunately, you don't have to own a boat or know how to maneuver one to enjoy an hour, an afternoon or a week on the Chesapeake's waters. You may not be a real sailor, but you can dream, and the air is as fresh for landlubbers as it is for old salts.

From Baltimore and Annapolis harbors and other smaller ports in nearby Maryland and Virginia, many ship captains already have begun their warm-weather cruising season with the rest to follow by the Memorial Day weekend. More than a dozen cruise and ferry operations are offering a variety of regularly scheduled trips, either wind- or motor-powered, and several of the excursions are new this year.

Splash across the bay for a day or the weekend in the two-masted Mystic Whaler, a New England windjammer carrying 3,000 feet of billowing canvas (when the wind is up). Or simply scurry up Spa and Back creeks in Annapolis in the little 24-passenger water taxi, the Miss Anne, on a 40-minute jaunt to see the shoreline homes and gardens. Buy a cocktail on board or wait for one at a dockside pub.

Form a group of six and charter the Lady Katie, an authentic working skipjack (no motor) that still dredges for oysters in the winter and sets sail in the summer from Tilghman, Md. (home of a skipjack fleet) for overnight cruises along Maryland's Eastern Shore. Any number of charter firms in Chesapeake harbors will rent a boat with experienced crew for as long as you want. (The Tourism Council of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County at 301-268-8687 is one place to start.)

If comfort is a big factor, the America and the Independence, two 80-passenger coastal liners from Connecticut, cruise the Chesapeake in spring and fall on seven-day trips from Baltimore. They offer staterooms with picture windows, fine dining, and lounges, sundecks and harbor hopping to several Maryland and Virginia ports of call.

New this year are the sunset sailings of the Amazing Grace, a two-masted, 30-passenger skipjack exploring Annapolis harbor from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. three nights a week.

For a cruise into history, the William B. Tennison, a one-time oyster boat built in 1899 and the oldest Coast Guard-licensed passenger ship on the Chesapeake, offers one-hour and three-hour excursions on the Patuxent River from the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Md.

For quick getaways, there are tours of Baltimore's Inner Harbor on the Baltimore Patriot and luncheon cruises from downtown Baltimore and Annapolis several times weekly on two large motor launches, the Port Welcome and the Port Baltimore.

Several tour boats and ferryboats service the quaint fishing communities on Maryland's Smith Island and Virginia's Tangier Island in the Chesapeake. Pack a lunch or eat at one of the seafood restaurants on the islands. The boats, departing from Reedville and Onancock, Va., and Crisfield, Md., provide time for exploring and relaxing.

And 18 miles south of Ocean City, on the Pocomoke River--which flows into the Chesapeake--Tillie, the Tugboat toots its way downriver several times daily on hour-long cruises from the tiny community of Snow Hill through Pocomoke River State Park, a swampy preserve of loblolly pines and bald cypress. The forest was once a refuge for bootleggers and Civil War deserters, but now it supports perhaps the largest number of bird species of any inland Atlantic area.

To fully savor the flavor of the Chesapeake Bay area, you should plan to spend some time on the water. Along with the superb views, it's a journey into history and a way of life that in some ways has changed little in the last century. For many of these cruises, it is essential to make reservations because space on the boats frequently is booked by bus tours. Here are many of this season's sailing schedules:

* ANNAPOLIS AND ST. MICHAELS, MD.: The 300-passenger Harbor Queen offers 40-minute sightseeing tours past the Naval Academy on the hour from 11 a.m. (Adults, $3.) The water taxi Miss Anne will operate on Spa Creek and Back Creek Friday through Sunday in May from 12:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and daily May 29 through Labor Day (reduced hours Monday through Thursday) ($3).

The Annapolitan II, a 100-passenger powerboat, makes a seven-hour round trip to St. Michaels, Md., on the Eastern Shore, a community of historic homes, craft shops and museums. The Annapolitan II will depart daily at 10 a.m. now through Sept. 7 with a three-hour stop in St. Michaels ($20).

A new addition to the fleet is the Rebecca Forbush, an oyster boat converted to passenger service. It currently offers 90-minute bay cruises at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. ($6). All four boats are moored at Annapolis city dock.

For information: Chesapeake Marine Tours, P.O. Box 3350, Annapolis, Md. 21403, 261-2719 (from D.C.) or (301) 268-7600.

* BALTIMORE AND ANNAPOLIS: The Port Welcome and Port Baltimore will alternate on Baltimore-to-Annapolis cruises Tuesdays through Saturdays beginning June 21 with several earlier sailings in May and June. They depart Baltimore's Inner Harbor at Light Street at 9 a.m., arriving in Annapolis at 11:45 a.m. for a three-hour stay, docking in Baltimore again at 5:30 p.m. ($9.90 before June 21; $12.10 after). On Wednesdays and Thursdays, there are luncheon cruises of Baltimore harbor fron noon until 3 p.m. ($12.50). Beginning June 21, luncheon cruises will also depart from Annapolis dock Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 1:30 p.m. ($11.50). On May 22 and Oct. 6 and 12, a 12-hour cruise of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal at the north end of the bay is scheduled.

For information: Baltimore Harbor Cruises, 301 Light St., Baltimore, Md. 21202 (301) 727-3113.

* ANNAPOLIS: The two-masted schooner Mystic Whaler departs Annapolis daily through June 26 (and again in September and October) for full-day cruises in the middle Chesapeake. Passengers can help raise the sails and steer the ship. Lunch aboard is grilled hamburgers, salad and dessert ($49 to $55). Sleep aboard the night before and enjoy a ship's breakfast ($75 to $89). Longer sails are also scheduled, and in the fall the Mystic Whaler will be joined by its sister ship, the Mystic Clipper, a replica of a Yankee privateer.

For information: Out O'Mystic Schooner Cruises Inc., 7 Holmes St., Mystic, Conn. 06355 (800) 243-0416.

* ANNAPOLIS: The Amazing Grace, normally a charter boat, will sail into the sunset Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. from now until the end of October. Bring your own food and drinks. Departs from the Chart House Restaurant across the Eastport Bridge ($20).

For information: Sun and Sea Yacht Charters, P.O. Box 4009, Annapolis, Md. 21403, 858-5651 (D.C.) and (301) 268-6660.

* ST. MICHAELS, MD.: The 103-passenger converted fishing boat Patriot of St. Michaels begins cruising the Miles River this weekend daily at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. from the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum ($4.40). This fishing and tourist community is known as the town that fooled the British in the War of 1812. In 1813, when the enemy fleet threatened a nighttime bombardment to destroy shipbuilding, residents are said to have hung lanterns in the trees outside of town to draw the fire away from their homes.

For information: Patriot Cruises, 8920 Philadelphia Rd., Baltimore, Md. 21237, (301) 391-6969.

* SOLOMONS, MD.: Weather permitting, the 45-passenger William B. Tennison will depart the Calvert Marine Museum (exhibits on Chesapeake Bay watermen) at 2 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday from May 28 to Oct. 26 for a one-hour cruise of the Patuxent River ($3.50; family maximum, $12). On Saturdays, there is a three-hour cruise from 4 to 7 p.m. to the scenically beautiful St. Leonard Creek, site of another War of 1812 naval battle, in which an American "mosquito" fleet in 1814 challenged the battle-hardened British force that defeated Napoleon ($8; family maximum, $25). The former skipjack, coverted to power in 1911, served in the oyster trade until 1978. The museum acquired it the following year.

For information: Calvert Marine Museum, P.O. Box 97, Solomons, Md. 20688, (301) 326-3719.

* TILGHMAN, MD.: Home of the Lady Katie, this harbor is across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and south on the route to Cambridge and Ocean City. The sailing vessel will switch from oysters to passengers from June 1 to Sept. 30. It's a six-person charter, with weekday sails from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. ($250) or with breakfast and lunch ($300). Weekend overnighters are $60 per person per day, all meals included. Anchor in port or in isolated coves. On pleasant nights, bring your sleeping bag on deck.

For information: Lady Katie Cruises, P.O. Box 232, Tilghman, Md. 21671, (301) 886-2630 (except Wednesdays) or evenings after 4 p.m. (301) 886-2459.

* CRISFIELD, MD. TO SMITH ISLAND, MD.: The 45-passenger Capt. Jason I and Jasons II and III are year-round ferries serving the residents of Smith Island as well as tourists. One or the other departs Crisfield (which bills itself as the "Seafood Capital of the World") at 12:30 p.m. for the 35- to 40-minute ride, docking in Ewell. The return trip is at 4 p.m. ($6 round trip). (There is a run back to Ewell at 5 p.m. with an 8 a.m. departure the next morning.)

For information: The Capt. Jason, Box 642, Tylerton, Md. 21866, (301) 425-5421.

CRISFIELD TO SMITH ISLAND: The 150-passenger Capt. Tyler and the 50-passenger Betty Tyler are summer cruise boats that will depart Crisfield daily at 12:30 p.m. from June 9 through Labor Day for a 70-minute trip to Smith Island, returning at 5:30 p.m. The $20 charge for adults includes a hearty seafood lunch at the Bayside Inn at Rhodes Point and a bus trip to Ewell.

For information: Capt. Alan Tyler, Rhodes Point, Md. 21858, (301) 425-2771.

CRISFIELD TO TANGIER ISLAND, VA.: The 305-passenger Steven Thomas is departing daily this season at 12:30 p.m. for the 75-minute ride to Tangier Island, a fishing village out of another era, arriving back in Crisfield about 5:15 p.m. ($12). Hike the island, visit the shops, chat with the residents, whose accent has a trace of the Elizabethan about it. Take a box lunch, try a restaurant on the island or dine in Crisfield on the return.

For information: Steven Thomas, Tangier Island Cruises, Tangier Island, Va., 23440 (804) 891-2240, (301) 968-0300 or (301) 968-2338.

* ONANCOCK, VA. TO TANGIER ISLAND: The Spirit of '76 provides a new service from Onancock, a boating community on Virginia's Eastern Shore, to Tangier Island from June 1 through Sept. 30. It will depart daily except Wednesdays at 10 a.m. for the hour-long trip, remaining in Tangier until 1:45 p.m. ($14).

For information: Spirit of '76, Office of Accomack County Administrator, P.O. Box 388, Accomack, Va. 23301, (804) 787-4289.

* REEDVILLE, VA. TO TANGIER ISLAND: On this side of the Chesapeake, Reedville (about a three-hour drive from Washington) is one of the largest fishing harbors in the country, though its fish are not for eating but for processing into oil and meal at two large plants in the community. From now through the second week in October, the 150-passenger Capt. Thomas will depart daily at 10 a.m. for the one-hour, 45-minute trip, returning to Reedville at 4:15 p.m. ($16).

For information: Tangier and Chesapeake Cruises, Warsaw, Va. 22572, (804) 333-4656.

* REEDVILLE TO SMITH ISLAND: From Memorial Day weekend to Sept. 30, the brand new 150-passenger Teresa Ann Evans (replacing the Teresa Ann) will depart daily from Reedville at 10 a.m. for the 90-minute trip to Smith (with a side tour of the Glen L. Martin National Wildlife Refuge to spot egrets and other birds), arriving back in port by 4:15 p.m. ($16). On the island is a new restaurant, the Skipjack in Ewell, serving a family-style Maryland seafood meal for $8.

For information: Island and Bay Cruises, Rte. 1, Box 289-R, Reedville, Va. 22539, (804) 453-3430.

* SNOW HILL, MD.: Tillie, the Tug (she looks like a storybook tugboat) departs Snow Hill daily for a one-hour cruise on the Pocomoke River at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Later evening cruises are frequently scheduled ($3).

For information: Snow Hill Tours Inc., 205 W. Federal St., Snow Hill, Md. 21863, (301) 632-2650.

* BALTIMORE: From May 21 to June 18, the America and the Independence, both large coastal waterway cruise ships, will depart Baltimore on weekends (one on Saturday, the other on Sunday) for seven-day excursions on the Chesapeake, with visits to Oxford, Crisfield, Cambridge and St. Michaels, Md., and Yorktown, Va. The fare is from $791 to $882 (double occupancy), depending on accommodations.

For information: American Cruise Lines, 1 Marine Park, Haddam, Conn. 06438, (800) 243-6755.

* BALTIMORE: The Baltimore Patriot offers daily 90-minute narrated tours of Baltimore's Inner Harbor and historic Fort McHenry of "Star Spangled Banner" fame. Until May 31, departures of the Baltimore Patriot will be at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Beginning in June, there will be hourly departures from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. ($4). The Baltimore Defender is a 20-minute shuttle service from the Inner Harbor to Fort McHenry and back. It will operate Memorial Day to Labor Day, departing from the Inner Harbor every half hour from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. ($3).

For information: Maryland Tours Inc., P.O. Box 147, Royal Oak, Md. 21662 (301) 685-4288.