It's 5 p.m. on a balmy evening, and the wooden dock of the Annapolis Yacht Club thumps under the steps of hundreds of Sperry Topsiders and sandals.

The docks are swarming with activity: Aboard more than a hundred boats, grizzled sailors are furling and unfurling their sails, reaching for halyards and backstays and popping open cold ones.

The Wednesday Night Races, Annapolis's homegrown summer sailing festival, are about to begin.

Since the 1950s, the town's sailing set has made its way to these docks most Wednesday evenings in summer to engage in a no-holds-barred contest for . . . well, a good time. In the last 50 years, the event has turned from a nearly rules-free seafaring social event into a well-recognized series of races that attract about 1,000 sailors from all over the Chesapeake Bay, manning 100 boats of myriad classes.

And here come the old-timers who link that past and this present: the ancient mariners aboard a boat called Bucentaur.

The 42-foot Beneteau cruiser, Jimmy Buffett music blaring, lands at the dock with a hearty thwack as the skipper, Jim Myers, tosses out a line to waiting hands.

"You want a beer?" he asks Fred Hecklinger, the oldest crew member, who has just strolled up. Hecklinger, 69, is a local legend as a boat designer. He attended his first Wednesday night race in 1960.

Myers, 59, has been sailing much of his life, and with a sailor's tan, dark hair and a superhero chin, he could pass for someone much younger. Other crew members trek aboard: Geoff Bridges, a cheerful New Zealander; Ross Glover, Chuck Newman and Ken Balenske, the muscular guys who will heave on the lines; veteran Jens Mathiesen, a Dane, who will help out where needed; and the two foredeck hands, Gretchen Krochman and Kate Myers.

The average age of the nine sailors aboard the Bucentaur today is 52, a figure dragged down considerably by the presence of Myers's daughter Kate, 20, a senior at Wake Forest University. Most of the crew has been racing on Wednesday nights since Kate was a child.

"Fifty percent of the battle here is getting out of the office without getting caught," says Glover, an Australian who, like Bridges and Mathiesen, has been drawn to Annapolis by the sailing scene.

After they shove off, a warm, southerly breeze, typical for this time of summer, carries the Bucentaur toward the marshaling area. In the distance is a forest of 120 sails, with crews scurrying over gently bobbing decks like industrious ants. The course will carry the boats in a roughly triangular circuit of the Severn River's mouth.

But there's trouble brewing. As the Bucentaur sprints toward the starting line with 30 seconds left, a threat suddenly looms from starboard. Another boat, the Freedom, is closing in, pinching the Bucentaur into the powerboat that marks the starting line. A collision is imminent.

Myers shouts, "Give it up, Pete!" at Peter Schellie, the rival captain. Schellie drives a hard line, and Myers is forced to yield, missing the other boats by inches. The others cross the line on time, meaning that Myers starts with a huge handicap. Barefoot at the tiller, he shouts a rapid series of commands to get the boat back on course.

Soon the Bucentaur is driving through the water, heeling 25 degrees. Although the boat is making good speed, it dawns on Myers that he's steering toward the wrong landmark.

"Am I looking at the wrong mark?" he asks.

"You're looking at the wrong mark," Bridges replies.

Myers mutters, then a moment later gives orders to tack.

"Ready?" he yells.

"Ready!" the crew responds.

"Tacking!" Myers cries. "Let's go, let's go, let's go, come on, let's go!" The jib and mainsail swish around as crew members frantically pull on line, and the boat lurches onto a different tack.

Then Myers notices a digital readout showing that the depth below the boat has started to drop: 19 feet . . . 13 feet . . . 8.4 feet -- the magic number. Any lower than that and the boat will run aground. The Bucentaur rides the edge of disaster, the crew members probing gingerly for deeper water as they overtake a competitor.

At last, the depth meter starts to rise. The crew members relax as they settle into the body of the race. About an hour later, as one of the final marks is rounded, the pack's spinnakers blossom like a garden in the sinking sunlight, and the race heads home.

Does Bridges have any idea how they are doing in the race?

"Nah," he says, shaking his head. A good race is more about handling your boat well than winning, he alleges.

And, as it turns out, the Bucentaur is beaten to the finish line by only half a boat length. It feels anticlimactic -- but that is only because the best part is yet to come. After the boat has sidled up against the dock once more, Myers breaks out heaping plates of shrimp and lump crabmeat. Rum tonics and more beer appear from below. The music starts up once more as the crew members dissect the race and catch up on the events in their lives.

Finally, it grows dark. The boisterous noises of the dock have become a low murmur. Pilot lights on the sailboats in the harbor shimmer off the water. Over the bridge, the sailors, their appetites for adventure sated on this summer night, trudge home. Bridges silently soaks in the scene.

"I don't know how you say it," he exclaims suddenly. "This is so much damn fun!"

The Wednesday Night Races off Annapolis have evolved from a nearly rules-free social event into a well-recognized competition that attracts about 1,000 sailors.After the race, it's party time as Geoff Bridges brings up the drinks on the Bucentaur. The menu also includes shrimp, crabmeat and beer.On the Bucentaur, Jens Mathiesen, foreground, watches as a collision with Freedom is avoided. Later, the Bucentaur is in danger of running aground.Jim Myers, the Bucentaur skipper, is supported by a crew that includes his 20-year-old daughter.