The District of Columbia government, which has very little experience in the used boat business, tried and failed yesterday to auction off a World War II vintage minesweeper that has been bobbing around in the Potomac River for more than two years.

Like the partially sunken boat the city's plan to sell the vessel did not stay afloat.

Only one bidder - Cornelius (Casey) Uyttewaal, 57, a scarp metal dealer from Cheverly - showed up to make an offer for the 127-foot, wooden-hulled craft. After a quick tour of the minesweeper, which is stuck on a sand bar in the Potomac north of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, he said the city would have to pay him to take it away.

"This boat is in really bad shape - much worse than I imagined," Uyttewaal said, as he climbed out of the boat's dark hole. "My estimation is that (the boat) is 99 per cent worthless. I want to make a deal for the city to pay to take the boat away."

The boat, once used by the U.S. Navy, first appeared in the Potomac River in 1974. It has been sailed from Portland, Maine, by William H. Dunham, identified by authorities as the ship's master.

iIn Maine, the boat has been used for lobster fishing, according to D.C. police harbormaster Lt. Thomas M. McGlynn. Dunham once told officials he planned to renovate the vessel and open a school of seamanship, Lt. McGlynn said.

The true ownership of the ship never has been established by Washington officials.

In 1975, the boat was evicted from the dock in Alexandria and allowed to anchor in the Potomac near the Washington Channel. The boat later lost its anchor and for a while floated back and forth acorss the river from Maryland to D.C. waters, finally coming to rest on the sand bar.

Last March, D.C. police gave Dunham 30 days to move the boat out of D.C. waters. In April, he was given an additional week to dispose of the vessel.

Finally, Dunham was charged with failure to move the boat, failure to register it and failure to employ proper anchor lights. In all, Lt. McGlynn said Dunham was charged $3,450 in fines. A hearing in Dunham's case is scheduled for Thursday in D.C. Superior Court.

Meanwhile, the infamous minesweeper, once named the "U.S. Gold Find" and later the "Aqua Lab," continues to sit with its belly in Potomac River mud. Diesel fuel from its hull is leaking into the river and city offi-first heavy freeze the boat could disintegrate and ram into the pilings of the bridge.

The D.C. city government seized ownership of the Aqua Lab earlier this month, with the idea that yesterday the boat would be sold to the highest bidder and by Dec. 15, its new owner would have safely removed it from the Washington area.

A D.C. Fire Department boat took Utyttweaal and a battery of 15 television and newspaper reporters and cameramen through chilly winds and rain to tour the condemned blue and white boats.

Once the crowd returned to the D.C. harbor, the auction went ahead, as scheduled. "I think we all know why we're here today," said Lt. D.L. Cissel, property clerk for the city police department.

He gave a brief description of the boat, noted that the sale must be for cash, and opened the bidding at $1,000, the amount needed to cover the city's expenses.

"Do I hear $1,000," he said looking around the room. After several sttempts to inspite a second bid, Lt. Cissel closed the bidding, leaving the city as the owner of the leaking Aqua Lab.

Uyttewaal offered to dispose of the ship for the city but his offer was not taken seriously becasue officials said he did not have access to equipment to move the vessel quickly.

Assistant Corporation Counsel Robert L. Chernikoff said the city will not look for a salvage company capable of hauling the minesweeper away within 15 days. He said one company contacted in Norfolk, Va., said they could do the job for $7,500.

"This is an emergency. The city is not in this to make money. But we want to get that boat out of here." said Chernikoff. "This is a real danger to the river. If that boat freezes and cracks up, it could clog the channel that brings all the winter fuel into D.C." CAPTION: Picture, The 137-foot ex-minesweeper the city put up for auction yesterday rests on sand bar in Potomac.

One man offered to move craft if the city would pay for service. By Bob Burchette - The Washington Post