"Let's see if it'll float," someone said as the raft was eased into the water.

"Hopeful" best describes the launching that Shelli Buschway, her husband Duane and her brother-in-law Steven gave their homemade craft, dubbed the "Last Chance Saloon," as they prepared to enter the 11th annual "Ramblin' Raft Race" yesterday on the Potomac River.

Unfortunately, the hope was in vain.

As soon as they stepped onto the raft, fashioned from two wooden planks tied precariously to four rubber inner tubes, it fell apart, sending its crew, a bar stool and a full bottle of bourbon into the water.

"I'd say y'all didn't pass the float test," drawled Lewis Stogner, a field director of the Atlanta-based American Rafting Association, which organized the race, as he looked on from the nearby launch pad.

Most of the other 55 entries in the race were slightly more seaworthy, however, and managed to complete the 1.3-mile course between the Memorial and 14th Street bridges.

About 2,000 people showed up to watch the spectacle along the river bank in West Potomac Park under a sparkling blue sky and then listen to country music under a tent.

The race, which originated in 1969 in a challenge to an Atlanta radio station by a Georgia Tech fraternity, was sponsored by Coors Beer and a local country music radio station, WMZQ-FM.

The flotilla of homemade craft, powered by oars, paddles, poles and pedals, came from the back yards and garages of enterprising raft-builders.

Their rafts were made in the images of a beer can, a newspaper press, a Corvette and a pirate ship called the "Jolly Roger" that came complete with cannon on the deck and a crow's nest made from a plastic laundry basket.

Aboard the "Oriana," whose pontoons were made of sewer pipes, S.E. Veazey of Fredericksburg, Va., gave directions to a crew of his colleagues from ORI Inc., a think tank in Silver Springs, Md.

To make sure that his authority was not questioned, Veazey wore a red button and cap, both inscribed with "Captain."

"Showboat" was powered by about 20 deckhands working in pairs, punting with aluminum poles. From afar, the raft resembled a pack of animated toothpicks.

Some craft did not take to the water too well. A mere gesture from Craig or Bruce Shotwell of Fairfax would put their raft into a wet tilt and, as they struggled to adjust its ballast provided by plastic chemical barrels, it capsized more than once, breaking their mast.

Their brother Bill shouted encouragement from the river bank.

"This raft's design is a combination of the Australian boat in the America's Cup race and the Titanic. We're just making some adjustments," he explained. "We hope to get honorary mention for the most tenacious crew."

The rafts were divided into nine categories, and prizes were awarded for the best time in rounding the course, the best team spirit and the most original design.

A special "River Heritage" award also was given for the raft that picked up the most garbage and debris from the river.

One of the reasons for the race is to instill greater awareness of the need to keep the nation's rivers clean, said Mary Hutton, executive secretary of the American Rafting Association.

Proceeds from the competition, earned from registration fees, will go to the Metropolitan Police Boys' Club.

Bruce Shotwell finally crossed the finish line about 1:20 p.m. He was just about the last one in, but his raft was still afloat.

Huck Finn would have understood.