Forget Army-Navy. The collegiate fall showdown that really matters is this weekend's battle on the Chesapeake Bay, a sailing race between the tiny but formidable sailing team of St. Mary's College of Maryland and its better-equipped rival up bay, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

The "Mac Daddy of college sailing," in current campus parlance, with 4,000 students who all know how to sail, a fleet of boats, more coaches, a fully staffed modern sailing center and a long history of dominating collegiate sailing, is up against St. Mary's College, the small state liberal arts college down the bay, with a student body of 1,500--a quarter of whom sail for fun--one coach, half as many boats and a boathouse from the 1960s that passes for a sailing center.

And guess who's No. 1.

"St. Mary's is our target of excellence. They're the benchmark of excellence," said Navy Coach Pat Healy.

St. Mary's College, a school without a football team or a signature varsity sport, is redefining its image as not just a place to get "an Ivy League education at a public school price" by consistently beating the Goliath of college sailing. The two face off during the fall regatta at the academy beginning tomorrow. The race is the year's best and largest among the country's top 20 teams.

In recent years, St. Mary's has become the powerhouse of college sailing, deposing long-dominant big schools with well-financed sailing programs-- places such as the University of Southern California, Harvard, MIT and Dartmouth.

"We have the highest respect for the Navy program. Quite simply, they are the best," said Adam Werblow, coach of the St. Mary's Seahawks. "Their coaches are spectacular; their sailors are great athletes and sportsmen from top to bottom. It is for these reasons that we strive to beat them. They are the standard."

Beat them, they did.

The most recent ranking by Sailing World magazine placed the Seahawks coed and women's teams at No. 1, above the Navy, the University of Southern California, Dartmouth, Stanford and Harvard. Navy was No. 4 in coed racing.

In June, the Seahawks team beat out 11 of the country's top college sailing teams during a race in Florida, capturing its sixth national sailing championship since 1993, and its first national title in team racing.

For the past several years, the Inter-College Yacht Racing Association, the national governing body for collegiate sailing, consistently has ranked St. Mary's College No. 1. At least 50 Seahawks have moved on to become all-Americans in sailing, and the team has produced three Olympians. One recent graduate, Mark Ivey, is trying out for the U.S. sailing team in the 2000 Olympics.

"I guess you could say that sailing is to St. Mary's College as football is to Notre Dame" University, said Jane Margaret O'Brien, president of the college, who is also a weekend sailor.

But at St. Mary's College, where there is more water than lawn on campus, the fact that one-quarter of the student body sails for recreation accounts, perhaps, for the success of the sport, O'Brien said.

"There are certainly not many state schools that have programs like theirs," said Teddy Turner IV, son of media magnate Ted Turner, who is also a trustee of the college.

After competing with the college team at an invitational regatta in Russia in 1989, Teddy Turner started getting to know the college's sailors and officials. In 1993, Turner donated Challenge America, the boat he trained on to sail the Whitbread 'Round-the-World, to the college. The college has since sold the boat, but Turner's involvement, and the clout of his name, have helped make sailing the sport that put St. Mary's College on the map.

"Academics are important but a school needs spirit, and I think spirit comes from athletic programs," Turner said.

"I just hope they can keep it up. It's kind of like the Braves," he said, referring to his father's baseball team in Atlanta. "You can be the team of the decade. But can you be the team of the next decade?"

When Werblow arrived in 1988, sailing was not a varsity sport, and it was limited to a small group who viewed it as recreation. They were good sailors, Werblow said, but a practice regimen was new to them. One of the first drills Werblow instituted was to sail rudderless. It is, as any sailor knows, as difficult as it sounds.

"One of the guys [on the team] had a huge fit, a total meltdown tantrum," Werblow recalled. But the team went on to win its qualifying matches, in part because Werblow had taught members that sailing rudderless doesn't mean sailing without control.

"It's real easy to spin out," Ali Sharp, a freshman from Gatlinburg, Tenn., said as she and her sailing partner, Anthony Kotoun, of the U.S. Virgin Islands, rigged their "Flying Juniors" this week during practice. The 14-foot fiber glass boats are the staple of college sailing.

Sharp and Kotoun, a returning all-American, sailed out to the middle of St. Mary's River, rudderless but on course. They are able to control their boat through a combination of shifting their own body weight and trimming the sails. More sail on the front turns the boat starboard, more aft turns it to the left.

Before Werblow, competitive sailing was casual, said Mike Ironmonger, the sailing center's director. In 1978, the country's top college sailors, drawn by the college's location, competed in a race. St. Mary's College placed fifth, Ironmonger said, but that was "a blip."

"That kept enough good sailors here that we remained respectable," Ironmonger said.

Then Werblow, himself a college sailing champion and a U.S. Junior Olympic coach, came to St. Mary's. He persuaded the college to buy a new fleet of boats and provide a travel budget for the athletes. With a community of sailors, the sell was a natural.

The watershed event came in 1990 when St. Mary's College won the legendary Timme Angston Cup, a Chicago race. At a team celebration at the Green Door, a local watering hole, the big silver bowl was filled with beer, and team members and college officials drank to their victory.

"It was a big turning point for us. Certainly that was the beginning," Ironmonger said.

"When I first got here, there were all these guys who really liked sailing, but they just had a different mentality about competing," Werblow said. They also had 40-year-old boats.

In addition to the new boats and $10,000-a-year travel budget--still modest compared with other schools--the new era of sailing ushered in by Werblow brought Turner's support and more trophies. It was enough to begin attracting the attention of the country's best young sailors.

"This is the top sport in St. Mary's College. When you're recruiting, it's easy to see that sailing here is not dwarfed by Division I basketball programs or other big sports programs," Ironmonger said.

Kotoun, 23, a senior majoring in economics, was drawn by the strong emphasis on academics. He grew up sailing in the Virgin Islands, and a school with a strong sailing program and a waterfront for a campus sealed his decision to come.

Kotoun hopes to compete in the 2004 Olympics representing the Virgin Islands.

"They have all the resources," Kotoun said, referring to the Navy.

"I grew up racing against rich kids with their own boats," Kotoun said, recalling the first time in 1995 he experienced defeating the Navy.

"It's like beating the rich kids. It's nice," he said.

CAPTION: Coach Adam Werblow announces the next sailing drill while junior Leah Anderson assists.

CAPTION: Sail boats line up for practice at St. Mary's College, which has consistently beaten the Naval Academy, the Goliath of college sailing.