A sailboat is not a place to rush. You can steer straight and the sails can be taut with a breeze, but itineraries and deadlines fall to the side when you settle low in the cockpit.

This was all too clear as I tried to keep out of trouble as instructor Chris Nalley tacked our Tanzer 22 across the choppy Severn River one recent day. As the main and head sails puffed with the southeast wind and the 700-pound keel cantilevered the fiberglass hull partway out of the gray water, I understood that the rudiments of sailing had to be absorbed over time. I'd booked a few hours at the Chesapeake Sailing School in Annapolis, thinking it would be enough to chalk up the basics, but I would have had better luck trying to learn German in an afternoon.

What looked so effortless from shore was another matter altogether on the Defender. Sails, winches, shrouds and the tiller took on Byzantine intricacies. Water sprayed into the cockpit, the horizon receded, outsized catamarans and tiny boats darted efficiently around us, and I started to feel like Gilligan.

Fortunately Nalley, who has sailed to Europe, and photographer Jim Thresher, who is at home on the water, synchronized the boat's tackings as we returned to the school's dock on Back Creek just south of downtown Annapolis. The only evidence that I'd been in the 22-footer was a series of wet black ink blots scattered across the cockpit from the pen I discarded when I was told to steer.

Boats long have been the stage for imagination--James Gatz transformed himself into Gatsby as he talked his way on to a yacht on Lake Superior--but the distance between serene fantasy and wind-shaped reality looms large. I'd seen 42-foot sailboats anchored off Maine and Nantucket and imagined living on one someday, gliding between time zones and in contact only by Global Positioning System, but this seemed ridiculous as I guided the Defender in unintentional swerves across the Severn after we'd dropped off Thresher.

"Most people are pretty quickly disillusioned about that," said Nalley, who has spent up to 30 days living offshore. "You don't realize how much stuff you have until you have to pack it into what amounts to a small room in a house."

The gusts hummed, whitecaps appeared and I lodged my foot against the cockpit seat's frame as the Defender's sails ballooned, the hull edging to a steep angle. The tiller took on an unsettling pressure. Helm-hand, lower back and leg joined together in a unified strain against natural forces that left no room for error. I felt like I was driving a tour bus across Annapolis Harbor. This was a long way from tropical naps in a deck hammock below lines clicking the mast in the wind. It was time to pay attention.

"The learning curve is actually endless," said Nalley, who adjusted the sails and steadily moved through work patterns despite knee surgery scheduled the next day for an old skiing injury. "I still have plenty to learn."

The place to absorb lessons is on a boat. The Chesapeake Sailing School's two-, three- and five-day beginner courses guide the landlocked from classroom cramming of nautical arcana--"Popeye Talk," as the booklet refers to it--to several hours of on-deck practice within sight of the Naval Academy and the Chesapeake Bay's shipping channel.

Nalley, 35, who has taught full time at the school for three years, patiently explained how to tie a figure-eight knot, how to jibe, how to hold a straight course by focusing on a spot on the far shore. As I neared competency in keeping the rudder on a line, the sport revealed itself as infinitely complex, similar to the way a three-chord strummer can sense his distance from mastering a guitar's fretboard.

"When you're out here you really have a thousand and one things to keep an eye on," Nalley said. "It's constantly changing. That's why time goes so quickly."

It did. We were at the end of the abbreviated session and tacked away from shore-edged trees just beginning to turn color. The Defender slid toward the entrance to Back Creek en route to the sailing school's dock. A small craft holding a skipper in a yellow slicker bobbed not far off. We neared a channel marker converted into a sturdy-looking nest by an absent osprey and curled around a huge sailboat with "Hamburg" spelled across its transom. It was from another language and time zone, from the city where the Beatles learned how to play.

No one was on deck, but as we pulled away I wanted to shout across: Any need for another hand on the return trip?

Questions? Comments? Do you know of a special place in the outdoors? We'd like to hear about it. Get in touch with John Mullen by writing him at: The Outsider c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington D.C., 20071. Or e-mail him at mullenj@washpost.com

TO THE WATER

Although the sailing season is winding down, it is never too early to plan. The Chesapeake Sailing School, which rents boats during the shoulder season (Nov. 1-March 31) to those certified by the American Sailing Association, is at 7074 Bembe Beach Road in Annapolis. To get there, take Route 50 East to Exit 22 (665 East). Continue through several lights and turn left at Edgewood Road just after a shopping center. Go 1 1/2 miles and turn left at Port Annapolis Marina. School office is on the right. For more information call 410-269-1594.

As for places to sail other than Annapolis, instructor Chris Nalley suggested Solomons Island and Tilghman Island as good spots to slide onto the water.

CAPTION: Chesapeake Sailing School instructor Gary Cusimano stands by to assist an intermediate class.