When asked what special provisions would be needed for this weekend's St. Mary's College of Maryland Governor's Cup overnight yacht race, Paul Parks responded without hesitation: "Dinner." But the 20-year Governor's Cup veteran only wishes that the race were so simple.

Parks, a defending champion from last year's race, is captaining one of roughly 200 boats expected to compete in the 26th annual Governor's Cup, which begins Friday evening and ends early Saturday morning.

Even a seasoned sailor such as Parks, who races every Wednesday in Annapolis and on about two dozen weekends throughout the year, knows the obstacles a night race presents. Beyond lack of sleep, a crew faces navigation challenges, deceiving weather patterns and a limited ability to watch opponents.

"It's like any other time on the bay, [in that] conditions can change quickly," said Parks, an Anne Arundel County resident who will lead a seven-person crew on his 40-foot prototype DynaFlyer 40. "And again at night, everything is a little more difficult than during the daytime. . . . Obviously, it's more difficult to see what competitors are doing. Reading the weather is more difficult, and navigation is more difficult."

The Governor's Cup boasts a variety of sailboats just as it does sailors, ranging from newcomers in the overnight race to veterans who likely could navigate the 70-mile course from Annapolis to St. Mary's College with their eyes closed. The race is conducted in Performance Handicap Racing Fleet (PHRF) format, in which the fastest sailors in each class have a certain amount of time added to their finish.

Two of the event's most senior competitors are Parks and Capitol Hill resident Jim Muldoon, who has been competing in the Governor's Cup since its inception.

Muldoon, 60, regularly sports the biggest boat and holds the event record for fastest time (six hours, nine minutes), but he has never won the event because of his huge time handicap.

Though Muldoon admits he's still as competitive as the first time he ever raced, what he enjoys most about the competition is a night on the Chesapeake.

"Sailors get to see a lot of beautiful skies with the moon and all sorts of stars," Muldoon said. "It's really a neat time."

Though a night on the water can be pleasant, it is not something to take lightly, both Parks and Muldoon assure.

Several years ago, a sailor was killed in an accident during the race. A few years back, the Governor's Cup drew a number of competitors interested primarily in the big post-race party, including one boat that sported a barbecue at the bow.

"Racing at night is nothing like racing during the day," said Muldoon, who is president of the U.S. Sailing Association. "There is less recreational traffic, but you have to watch for commercial traffic. . . . The course is not a difficult course, but you have to be careful. Tides and winds can change, so [the course] is never the same."

St. Mary's College has made several changes beginning this year to help increase sailing safety and awareness.

For the first time in race history, the college has retained a team of three meteorologists to relay to the sailors weather and wind developments through the night. A Coast Guard Auxiliary boat will follow the fleet in case of emergencies. And a $25 discount off of next year's race has been offered to any sailors who attend a seminar on safety at sea, this winter at St. Mary's.

Muldoon said he has come a long way in his sailing days and expects to continue with the sport for many years to come.

"I was a cruising sailor," Muldoon said of his early sailing experiences. "It was a great way to go out on a date with a girl or have some drinks. But once I got into the racing part of it, oh, boy, it bit me hard."

ABOUT THE RACE

* What: 26th running of the St. Mary's College of Maryland Governor's Cup Race.

* When: Race starts Friday at 6 p.m. in Annapolis at the Thomas Point Lighthouse on the mouth of the Severn River. The 70-nautical-mile race concludes early Saturday morning, usually between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m., on the campus of St. Mary's College.

* Race Details: One of the most popular overnight races on the East Coast, the Governor's Cup regularly draws a field nearing 200 boats in nine classes based on a boat's handicap and model. Trophies will be presented to the top five finishers in each class. A "Best in Fleet" trophy will also be presented to the winner in the most competitive class and a most improved trophy will be awarded to the boat that betters its time the greatest from last year.

* Party Details (Saturday): A shoreside celebration on the campus of St. Mary's College begins at 10 a.m, with three bands and a variety of food and merchandise vendors. The awards ceremony begins at 4 p.m. and will be followed by the auction of a 27-foot Olympic Class Soling, which won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympic Games. The Governor's Cup dinner begins at 6 p.m. and the bands will continue playing until 11 p.m. The dinner costs $30 and a reservation is required.

* For more information call: 301-862-0382.