National Consumer Week, which begins Monday, will spotlight the grass-roots work by consumer groups around the country, according to the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs.

In keeping with that idea, Virginia Knauer, director of the office, decided against staging the kind of major Washington exhibition that has marked previous consumer weeks. "We will have a reception Monday night, but there won't be any big event on the Mall or anything like that," said spokesman Joseph Dawson.

To underscore the theme, Knauer will travel to five different cities, including Chicago and Milwaukee, to participate in consumer events calling attention to the occasion, Dawson said. The biggest event, he said, will take place Thursday in Lafayette, Ind., when Purdue University announces a new nationwide computer program to help teachers locate consumer education material.

Some consumer advocates, however, contend that Knauer opted for this year's grass-roots plan to avoid the confrontations that have been mounted during past Consumer Week celebrations. "Every time they do anything in Washington for Consumer Week , they get flak from the consumer groups, who point out that they the Knauer office and the Reagan administration aren't doing anything," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. "They've given up on a Washington event because every time it has backfired on them."

Dawson denied that previous protests had an effect on this year's planning. He also predicted that the Monday reception will be picketed. "They'll be there, it's SOP standard operating procedure ," he said.

The conflict over Consumer Week isn't restricted to the national political arena. Local officials in the Washington area appear to be as divided in their approach to the event as the Claybrook-Knauer camps.

In the District of Columbia, the Office of Consumer Information is cosponsoring a home-improvement information fair Tuesday. Alexandria Mayor Charles E. Beatley is scheduled to proclaim next week as Consumer Week in his city. And the Fairfax County Office of Consumer Affairs is doubling the size of its newsletter in order to publish a description of the state's major consumer protection laws.

But Montgomery County has decided to ignore the whole thing.

"It is a quiet protest in a way," said Barbara Gregg, executive director of the consumer office, because "we haven't been very happy with what this administration is doing with consumers." She said her office made its decision "some time ago" to do business as usual, rather than schedule special activities.

"We would rather see . . . some action on the part of the FTC [Federal Trade Commission], more consumer publications coming out of government agencies, more activities in general in both the executive department and in the regulatory commissions," Gregg said. "We think there is a pulling back on the part of the federal government and, therefore, the week seems to be more public relations than substance."

Donna Crocker, director of the Prince George's Consumer Protection Commission, said her office has agreed to cosponsor a consumer forum April 27 with several other groups, including the United Communities Against Poverty. Nevertheless, Crocker said she basically feels the same way as Gregg about the week.

"There are so many cuts that have come down the line nationally that tend to hurt consumers," she said. "Also, we do so much consumer educatioattempt to operate a schooner commercially was a 189-foot four-master, the Sally Persis Noyes (renamed the Constellation) in 1934. Overnight steamboat service between Washington and Norfolk continued until 1957.

The official records of Washington's harbormaster are one measure of the port's one-time busyness: " . . . Imports during the years 1892-96 were delivered in 14,761 sailing vessels. Alexandria's port warden for the same period totaled 5,498 vessels." The cargoes were largely coal, fertilizer, lime, grain and miscellaneous foodstuffs and farm products and ice harvested from New England rivers and ponds.

The Alexandria, from which we viewed yesterday's festivities, was built in Sweden in 1929 for a similar type of local shipping in Scandinavia. She was refitted for passengers in the 1970s and, since 1983, has sailed under the house flag of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, a group trying to stir community interest in that city's maritime heritage. She can be visited most Saturday and Sunday afternoons at the foot of Prince Street.

To take a voyage on the Alexandria is to make a journey back in time as her youthful captain, Robert (Bert) Rogers, shouts urgent orders to his crew of six and the four student trainees who are aboard at any one time. Avast, ye landlubbers, you'll learn the real meanings of cutting one's jib and having three sheets to the wind.