The day started out rotten and barely improved.

All along Rte. 50 on the Eastern Shore, carloads of holiday beach-goers plodded along, windshield wipers in motion. On the boardwalk here at Ocean City, tourists in long pants and hooded sweat shirts huddled against a blustery wind. Nobody wanted ice cream.

"I'm going to end up with a windburn instead of a sunburn," moaned Amy Tate, 13, of Baltimore, whose most fervent wish had been to wear her new bikini in the sun. She was shivering instead in blue jeans and a sweater.

The Memorial Day weekend, synonymous with the beginning of the summer season, was launched today with a whimper instead of a whoop. Fortunately, the National Weather Service is predicting a marked improvement for the remainder of the holiday weekend.

Most of the clouds are expected to blow out to sea in the morning, forecasters said, leaving partly sunny skies and afternoon highs of about 78 degrees, about 15 degrees warmer than today's seaside temperature. (Those who celebrate the Memorial Day weekend in Washington should enjoy fair skies, highs near 80, and nighttime lows in the 60s.)

Traffic was reported heavy last night both on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and on I-95 south of Washington. Police at the Bay Bridge said there was a five-mile rolling backup west of the span.

At the Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge in Baltimore, however, traffic was described by police as "light and moving well with no problems."

For the early birds among the 250,000 tourists expected to flock to the Delaware and Maryland beaches this weekend, today's forbidding weather was a disappointment and a joke.

"I hear it's sunny and nice back in Pittsburgh," said Re Tott, 28, whose plans to camp with three friends on the Maryland shore were scrapped last night and who ended up in a motel. "We're going to get drunk."

On the nearby beach, a lone man walked briskly, hands in his pockets, hair blown forward into his eyes. The boardwalk shuttle train rumbled by with two passengers. A sudden squall of rain threw a splatter of big drops onto the empty boardwalk benches.

Susan Seifried, public relations director for Ocean City, said today that the warm, dry spring months have already brought 10 percent more people to the area this year than last.

"If it turns out to be an overcast weekend after all," she said, "people can shop to their hearts' content."

Some businesses, however, were at the mercy of today's foul weather. Joseph Cenci, 19, was an idle employe at the Bull on the Beach restaurant on the boardwalk. He watched the few dozen bundled-up people scurry by with wonderment.

"These people I don't understand," said Cenci, who is working his third Memorial Day weekend at the beach. "Why they would want to be out at all is beyond me, but they're tourists."

One door up at The Potato Shack, there were no snackers. The floor outside the stand, usually covered with spilled and trampled french fries, was spotless.

"Oh well," said a resigned Al Hubberman, owner and manager. "Cold weather doesn't bring people to the beach. But tomorrow is another day."