The 25-year-old construction worker from West Virginia who decided to celebrate the Fourth of July by floating down the Potomac River in his tiny, inflatable raft was definitely in trouble.

Richard Musser spent an hour bobbing in the wakes of the large power boats that zigzagged around him and trying desperately to use one broken paddle to get back to Hains Point.

The D.C. police harbor patrol rescued him.

Musser, who works on construction projects in Rosslyn, was one of several boaters aided by the police boatmen yesterday as the river became crowded with an estimated 700 small and large vessels jockeying for the highly prized anchorages between the 14th Street and Memorial bridges for a view of the annual fireworks display at the Washington Monument.

"The Fourth of July is our busiest day of the year," said Sgt. Ronald Wilkins, of the harbor patrol. "We are most concerned about safety because there are so many boats out there and so many people drinking."

The entire squad of 25 officers worked yesterday, with the majority assigned to the evening shift when the river would be busiest.

The officers, dressed in dark blue uniforms and many in newly issued rubber-soled deck shoes, manned the squad's fleet of seven blue and white boats.

Most of their day and night was spent signaling to people to slow down, telling swimmers to get out of the water because swimming is illegal, checking boats to ensure that everyone aboard had a life vest and dodging firecrackers lobbed from the Virginia shore near the Columbia Island Marina.

Wilkins recalled that a "Roman candle war" started two years ago when visitors to the Virginia shore shot fireworks missiles onto boats in the water.

"The boaters kept calling in to us to stop it but we couldn't get there fast enough," said Wilkins. "Then we heard a boater on the ship-to-shore telling us that if we didn't do something, they would. And then some of the boaters starting firing flares at the shore.

"Since then we have created a buffer zone between the boats and the shoreline," Wilkins said.

Yesterday, a group of young men and women seated next to a pickup truck and jeep on the Virginia shore hurled what police identified as cherry bombs onto boats leaving the Columbia Island Marina.

"We're not going to land and try to break that up," said Wilkins. "There are too few of us. The best we can do is get the U.S. Park Police to come down and deal with them."

As more boats arrived at the best viewing spots on the river, anchor lines stretched in all directions.

Officer Kevin Doheney carefully maneuvered his police boat among the collection of houseboats, small motorboats, canoes and elegant cabin cruisers and their attendant anchor lines.

"You have to watch those anchor lines," he said. "If you run across one, it will pull the two boats together and damage them both. As it gets more and more crowded here, sometimes a boat will cross an anchor line and then you have fights and then we have our hands full."

It was late afternoon when Doheney and his partner, reserve Officer Jim Lynch, spotted Musser in his raft near National Airport.

Musser scrambled aboard the police boat and Lynch pulled the raft aboard.

"Those big boats out here really scared me," said Musser.

"I've been trying to get back to shore for an hour but my paddle broke. I think it was the six-pack of beer that convinced me to go for a ride."