On a wooden dock overlooking the polluted brown water of the Anacostia River, 8-year-old Jamesha Gray knelt before a small rowboat and carefully affixed a black sticker bearing the letter "S" to its stern.

Other youngsters helped attach the rest of the letters at the Anacostia Park Boat Ramp, and finally, the boat's name, HS Higher Ground, shone proudly.

Jamesha's mother, Renee, 37, of Oxon Hill, almost couldn't believe the boat was ready for its maiden voyage.

"It's amazing to me," she said. "I was like, 'I don't know, y'all will mess around and sink out there.' "

About a dozen young people from the Higher Ground Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Southeast Washington launched the 12-foot rowboat into the Anacostia yesterday morning, after having spent the last two weeks constructing it under the guidance of Frank Rackley, director of community boat building at the Alexandria Seaport Foundation.

The foundation has donated materials and instructed youngsters in the art of boat building for 12 years, said its executive director, Joe Youcha, who designed the boat.

The 7- to 12-year-olds from Higher Ground spent summer afternoons learning the basics of geometry and marine heritage, two key aspects of the program, Youcha said, while sawing and hammering the wood into shape and then sealing it with two coats of paint.

"They're aware that it's their river," Rackley said. "We want them to take ownership over something that's really a wonderful feature of this area."

Rackley's pupils were at times a bit skeptical about taking on boat building; many of the program's participants, after all, had never been in a boat. But after some prodding, they started arguing over who got to saw and hammer.

Yesterday was no different. The children, strapped into their life jackets, clamored for the chance to be one of the boat's first passengers.

First, though, they each grabbed an oar and gathered around the boat for a prayer, led by the church's pastor, Angeloyd Fenrick.

"As we launch the boat, we wish it be blessed," she said.

Before the boat was to float, there was still work to do. Rackley summoned the children, instructing them on the importance of balance.

They had practiced climbing into the boat earlier on the dock. "Step one foot in, stay low," Hackley instructed them. "Every time you're in there, you stay real low and step in the center."

Fenrick had one more warning before a group of four boarded.

"Now you all obey the commands on the boat," she said. "Pastor Fenrick doesn't intend to jump into that nasty water. A few years ago, they said the fish in the Anacostia were choking."

The children didn't question that assertion. Nearby, a tire floated. Tree branches, soda cans and a single flip-flop also bobbed in the calm waters.

"This water stinks," Miles Gee, 9, declared.

Corddaro Sullivan, 18, a recent graduate of Cardozo Senior High School, has worked with Rackley building boats for the past two summers. Yesterday, he led the children as they lifted the boat off its sawhorses and gently pushed it into the water.

Three eager boys made the first voyage, with Sullivan manning the oars. Youcha launched a second rowboat, one of similar size on loan from the D.C. police department.

After his turn, 8-year-old Marcus Bias of Oxon Hill proclaimed the ride a smooth one. "It was like a car in the water," he said.

Joseph C. Fenrick, the pastor's husband, proudly snapped photographs of the children on the boat and even took a ride himself. He said he grew up a mile from the dock but had never boated on the river.

After everyone had gone out more than once, the children grabbed plastic bags and picked up garbage in the boat landing area.

"They've had quite a summer," Fenrick said. "They're definitely going to have a story to tell when they go back to school."

At the Anacostia River, Victoria Thomas, 12, boards the rowboat that she and other young parishioners of Higher Ground Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in the District built as part of a summer project sponsored by the Alexandria Seaport Foundation.