When a friend invited Ron Spicuzza to go sailing on a windy September night about 20 years ago, Spicuzza was expecting a 60-minute tour. He was off by 23 hours. But he was also onto something big.

"He didn't tell me we were going to be gone for 24 hours," said Spicuzza, recalling with a laugh the race that sailed to Norfolk in 30-knot conditions; ideal winds are 10 to 15 knots. "Once you're down the bay, what could you do, [say] let me off the boat? I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know if we were in danger, but I sure felt like it. It was a very testy sailboat race, and we won."

The experience started him down a path that today through Tuesday leads him onto the Chesapeake Bay, where the California resident, his 30-foot Olson 29 boat -- named Priority One -- and crew will compete in the Seventh Annual Screwpile Lighthouse Regatta.

After the auspicious first race, Spicuzza kept coming back to sail and became a part of his friend's crew. In 1986, he bought his own boat.

Since then, Spicuzza has sailed in prestigious races -- including one to Bermuda -- and captured the Southern Maryland Sailing Association's High Point award two years ago.

But early on, he let his competitive side get the better of him.

"I really got into the rules in the beginning," Spicuzza said. "When somebody violated a rule, I used to be the first one in the protest room. After a while, I found out that that wasn't any fun. Sailing is the fun part. So I go out of my way not to do that. I just won't do that anymore.

"Usually, I just yell and scream and get out of the way after that," he said. "I still want to win but I don't want to win [because of] a protest [that] seven, eight people voted on . . . . I want to win because there's a clear win at the finish line."

Now, Spicuzza can focus on sailing, where he is able to use his engineering skills for the technical aspects. He has had the same veteran six-person crew -- which includes his 24-year-old son, Brian -- for almost three years. But the elder Spicuzza still takes competition very seriously, according to the younger.

"Sometimes if someone sees something he doesn't like, he'll point it out. [Ron] is open for options," said Brian, who has been racing with his dad since 1986 and returned a few weeks ago from cruising the West Indies on a boat with a friend for five months. "He's an easygoing guy . . . [but] he's definitely the captain of the boat."

Ron Spicuzza's involvement in sailing has extended beyond trying to get a steady boat on the water. He has been a Southern Maryland Sailing Association board member for 11 years, including stints as a treasurer. His company donates the SMSA Web site.

Not coincidentally, he also was the founding chairman of the Screwpile Regatta, which some people doubted could be successful. Some said the area was too small and weren't sure they could attract enough people. The race has grown from about 40 boats to more than 100.

"One of the reasons this thing has worked so well is because of his positive attitude," said current Screwpile Chairman L.G. Raley. "He said, `It will work.' He kept to his beliefs."

And it all began with a slightly ominous, very unexpected excursion.

"I had never been on a sailboat on my life," Spicuzza said. "I didn't know how to spell sailboat. If somebody wants to do it hard enough, and bad enough, they'll just go out and do it. And that's what I did."

Screwpile Lighthouse Challenge

What: The Seventh Annual Screwpile Lighthouse Regatta.

Where: Beginning at Solomons Island, with the majority of racing to take place on the Chesapeake Bay at the mouth of the Patuxent River. The event headquarters is at Zahniser's Yachting Center.

When: Today, Monday and Tuesday, beginning about 10:30 a.m. and running until mid-afternoon (depending on race conditions).

Details: Daily and cumulative points will be kept throughout the Southern Maryland Sailing Association-sponsored event, which features more than 115 boats competing in 11 classes in two races a day. The course is approximately 6 to 10 miles. Total purse is $6,000. . . . The regatta is named after the Screwpile lighthouses, wood structures resembling cottages anchored into the riverbeds with pilings that had cast-iron screws at the end. Only three of the 41 Screwpile lighthouses that adorned the Chesapeake Bay's coastline remain.

CAPTION: Ron Spicuzza, of California, came about sailing unexpectedly 20 years ago and eventually became the founding chairman of the Screwpile Lighthouse Regatta.