You can put a farmer in a sailor suit, but can you make him sail?

Dozens of tiny sailboats could be seen bobbing on, in and below the waves of the Severn River in recent weeks, as new midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy received their first sailing lesson.

''Where are you from?'' Ensign Michael (Rudy) Randolph shouted at the young midshipman at the tiller of the little Laser sailboat, fresh from a minor collision.

''Iowa, sir.''

''I knew there was something wrong with you. Grow potatoes?''

''No, sir, Corn, sir.''

The midshipmen, fresh from the cornfields and other landlord climes, had joined the Navy and now they had to learn to sail. Randolph, from Potomac, and a handful of other about 35 of the ''plebes'' to teach one recent afternoon, but decided that nothing beats learning firshand.

''We don't yell at them or anything,'' he said, pointing out that the 15 hours of sailing the plebes do over several days is great relief enduring the intimidation of their grueling first weeks at the academy. Indeed, as another group of plebes marched to the sound of drums on the rive bank, the plebes in boats laughed and smiled in the sun. ''This is the most relaxed it probably is for them a summer,'' Randolph said.

But not too relaxed. ''You big dummy,'' Randolph yelled at one plebe, who had taken his freedom too far and sprawled across his boat to soak in the sun. ''What are you doing? You're going to fall asleep, roll over in the water and drown!''

The ensigns drove around in small motor boats, calling out occasional advice and good-humored reprimands, but generally letting collision and capsize speak for themselves.

''Yesterday was our first day -- we ended up the water about 12 times. They just put you out there, and you just sink or swim,'' said Jean Rease, a midishipman from landlocked Athens, Ohio, who was learning to sail in a boat with Midshipman Eliizbeth Meneeley from York, Pa. With lighter winds and more experience, their second day was a dry one.

''You gotta learn pretty much by yourself,'' said Midshipman Frank Davey from Philadelphia, who had a head start because he had done some saling of his father's catamaran.

''They do learn a lot,'' Randolph said. ''They are smart kids. They come here at first, and they don't know right from left.''

Randolph -- who strt flight school in September -- admitted the few of these plebes will ever need to sail. But even in these days of nuclear submarines and jets, sailors should know the basics of sailing, he said.

Ensign Tim (Doc) Dougherty, another instructor, said ''It would be quite embrarrassing to have someone ask you to go sailing, and you are a senior at the Naval Academy and say, 'No, I don't know how to sail.' ''

The winds came up late in the afternoon, and several boats capsized, collided and performed other acts embarrassing to the Navy. The sails of two boats became tangled with each other. ''Go in!'' Dougherty yelled toward one boat as the lesson drew to a close. The boat promptly capsized. ''Not in the water,'' he called out. ''Into shore.''

So it was back to land, studying, parades and the orders of superior officers. By the time they hit the dock, or as near to it as they could manage, the fledgling sailors had assumed the humble and obedient disposition of Naval Academy plebes. Asked if he had enjoyed his sail, one plebe said, 'You should speak tot he instructor, sir.''