Sailing the high seas, or even the Potomac, is difficult enough without all the public relations inherent in a modern goodwill voyage. The captain and crew of the Spirit of Massachusetts, a 125-foot schooner that arrived here yesterday, rediscovered the fact Friday night in stiff winds off the Quantico Marine base marina in Virginia.

It was just before 3 a.m., and everybody aboard except Marie Suprenant was sleeping below deck. Suprenant, a 21-year-old crew member from Hampton Beach, N.H., was on watch when the graceful craft began dragging its anchor and drifting toward a shoreline dominated by a large power plant.

She rousted first mate Mitch Alberts and, in a moment, the crew members of the Spirit were rolling out of their bunks, hauling their pants on and making for the vessel's deck to the sound of "All hands!" A dramatic campaign was under way to keep the schooner clear of the river bottom.

Capt. J.B. Smith, a bearded salt with 10 years' experience on tall ships, was forced to maneuver his craft back to its anchorage in the face of a contrary tide and winds. The crew, fighting the weight of the ship and the current, hauled the anchor aboard with the Spirit's Windlass anchor retriever -- an archaic machine that seems to emphasize the wholesomeness of human exertion.

It didn't have to be this way. Smith could have kissed off the perilous anchorage and headed up river to Washington, where he could have tied up at a cozy dock.

But the etiquette of his goodwill mission -- and the requirements of good public relations -- drove him and his crew to battle an uncooperative river and a blustery night lit by a full moon.

With an elaborate reception awaiting the Spirit the next day, complete with a fireboat spurting water and dignitaries decked out in pressed whites, couldn't pre-empt it all by arriving before the commotion started. Moreover, some District of Columbia officials were scheduled to get on the boat at Quantico and he couldn't leave them behind. It wouldn't be good public relations.

So it was back to the anchorage for the Spirit of Massachusetts.

Yesterday morning, the 40-year-old Smith reflected on the politics of wind and sail as he relaxed at the helm in his customary Army jacket, khaki trousers, sweater and woolly house slippers wrapped with duct tape.

"There were times last night when I said, 'Maybe we should just forget about these people and go on to Washington,' " he said. "But, I figured, you can't spoil the scenario. That's the way it is with these deals. People get into the Greyhound Bus mentality. You get there 10 minutes late and somebody says, 'But you said you'd be here.' That's why I always put in a fudge factor."

The arrival at D.C.'s Southwest waterfront later in the day went as scheduled, with big smiles all around at the Gangplank Marina, 600 Water Street SW. The schooner is the first of several such old-fashioned tall ships that will be tying up here in the coming weeks to call attention to the Potomac Riverfest '85, a riverside festival scheduled for June 8 and 9.

In the modern world of old-fashioned sailing, tall ships frequently are used to promote such events. New England Historic Seaport Inc. of Boston built and operates the Spirit for the purpose of generating good will, touting the virtues of sailing and capturing some revenue from charter sailing. Ever since the Bicentennial's OpSail '76 there has been a boom in tall masts.

The crew of the Spirit, a mixture of professional sailors and volunteers seeking adventure, keep in the good will spirit by sailing the schooner all over the East Coast, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. When the ship puts into port, they pull on their whites and lower a plank for visitors. The Spirit will be open to the public today from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The Spirit, with a crew of eight professionals, two student volunteer sailors and J.B. Smith's mother-in-law and father-in-law departed St. Mary's, Md., on Friday morning bound for Quantico. For the in-laws, it was a jaunt. Their daughter, ship's cook Wendell Holmes-Smith, married the captain aboard the Spirit last fall in a helm-side ceremony followed by the happy couple rowing away in a dory.

For Barb Dodwell, a Canadian mother of three, sailing is an adventure, a break from a career and family. But for Rick McDonough, a 31-year-old Maine native with a heavy Down East accent, sailing is a career.

Professional sailing today aboard a schooner like the Spirit, which was launched a year ago, is quite different than it was aboard similar vessels in the last century. The Spirit's prototype forerunner, the Fredonia out of Gloucester, Mass., was a fishing boat that plied the Grand Banks off New England.

McDonough's own forerunner, his grandfather, plied the Maine coastline shipping wood pulp and lime to the big cities. "There was a passenger trade, too," said McDonough, who bears a strong resemblance to actor Robin Williams. "My grandfather called them skin boats. He did not much care for them. He'd roll over in his grave now if he saw me."

McDonough's is a skin boat, of a sort, since tall ships primarily are used to train students and greet the public. He has chosen to work as a crew member because service on a schooner is the closest he can come to pure sailing in the old-fashioned style.

With McDonough and the rest of the crew raising the Spirit's four principal sails in winds gusting to 40 knots, the schooner made fast time from St. Mary's City to Quantico. The shoreline of the Potomac sped by, the river's waves rolling against the Spirit's hull, raked by the breeze. The crew toiled nonstop, sheeting in, coming about, making fast -- all those nautical chores that make for hard callouses in the goodwill sailing trade.

And, as the sun set over the bowsprit in a burst of orange, lavender and purple, Capt. Smith recalled other voyages, other sunsets, landfalls and a morning in Istanbul when sun rose over Asia and glistened against the minarets of the Golden Horn.