Washington's boating season was officially launched yesterday as about 200 boats -- from tiny sailboats to Coast Guard motorcraft -- paraded along the Southwest waterfront for the ninth annual Blessing of the Fleet.

The boats, from seven area boating clubs, motored by the pier of the Gangplank Restaurant and Marina where three ministers took turns praying over each boat and crew.

"This goes way back to the blessing of fishing vessels in the Mediterranean a thousand years ago," said Gangplank owner Thomas Rowan, referring to an era when safe return to the port was far from a certainty. The graceful flotilla yesterday featured a cameo appearance by The Alexandria, one of the area's official tall ships. Other yachts, houseboats and police motorcraft bore names such as Pink Giraffe, Rainbow's End, The John Glenn and The Tactless.

Some were brought in just for fun, while others, draped in streamers and flags, competed for awards from the Waterfront Washington Association, a group of local merchants and boat lovers that sponsored the event.

For best all-around boat, judges Joyce Cappon and Ronald Britt chose the new, gleaming Shahaka Pearl from the Tantallon Yacht Club. The crew rewarded for having the most fun on board went to Riches from the Gangplank Marina.

There was a toga party aboard Touch of Class where about a dozen "Greeks" and a belly dancer frolicked on a deck festooned with blue and white streamers and purple balloons. Without a doubt, the "most original" award went to that boat and skipper John Keim.

This was clearly a boaters' event, judging by the absence of onlookers from the shore. Many boat owners not participating in the parade took advantage of the near-perfect weather and watched the festivities from their nautical balconies.

Boating has captured the heart of many Washington area residents over the last 20 years, according to 83-year-old Bob Hollander, waterman and former nightclub owner. Hollander docked his first boat at the Washington Marina more than 40 years ago when there was no place else to put it. Now hundreds of boats rent slips along the Maine Avenue waterfront and perhaps 30 or 40 percent of those craft are lived in year-round, according to estimates of local residents.

"Boating is like a disease, it gets under your skin," said Hollander, who has lived on his 50-foot houseboat for the last eight years. "People get joy out of their boats, no matter what size they are," he said from his perch behind the ministers.

And what size boats were there? Sails lashed to little more than canoes floated in behind hulking, three-tiered vessels. Yesterday every captain was proudly steering his or her own yacht.

The definition of a yacht? "It's a big empty pit you keep throwing money into," said the emcee, Walter Gold