With excellent timing, 150 leading shipping people met here recently to consider the commercial feasibility of a return to sail ships. One ship designer neatly summed up why the meeting was taking place at all: "Five years ago, we would have laughed at anyone advocating a return to sail. But the spiraling cost of oil has changed all that . . ."

he occasion was the Royal Institute of Naval Architects (RINA) symposium on commercial sail. In the main, it was a meeting of marine businessmen, engineers and commercial designers -- hardheaded men with a close eye on the balance sheets. There was no talk of going back to the days of the great cutters and clippers; the new breed of commercial sailing ships will incorporate the very latest technology right down to an onboard computer to select the best route from data provided by weather satellites.

It was stressed that the recent increases in the price of oil have made sail a profitable option. In West Germany, in the United States, in Britain, designers are hunting for backers and customers for wind-powered vessels. Sail ships on certain routes could compete with motor vessels today, they say; expenses will be incurred where they should: in people's wages, not oil.

Capt. Mike Willoughby of the British Wolfson Marine Unit may be getting U.S. backing for a $15-million, five-masted bark which he designed for bulk cargo carrying. The Windrose would be equipped with a diesel auxiliary engine, do 14 knots and complete the Europe to Australia run in just over a week longer than a motor ship. At current oil prices, the voyage would cost owners a fifth less per ton of cargo.

Westerners, of course, are wrong when they talk about "going back" to commercial sail. In many parts of Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean and the Middle East, cargo and passenger carrying by sail never died out. In Indonesia, for instance, 10,000 Parhu sailing vessels are still a vital part of the archipelago's transport system. They carry timber, copra, flour, salt, fertilizers, even delicate cargoes like porcelain and tiles. Interrupted pipeline

The producers of primary products -- chiefly the developing countries -- would be the first to benefit from a switch to sail. According to Prof. Alistair Couper of the Maritime Studies Department at the University of Wales, "the principal beneficiaries from a shift from power to sailing vessels would be the producers of copra, jute, sisal, coconut and palm kernels."

At present, producers of such products cannot pass on freight charges to consumers owing to stiff competition from man-made substitutes. In 1976, freight charges accounted for 20 percent of the final cost of jute and 29 percent of the cost of palm kernels. Cheap sail transport could help such products compete against synthetics by reducing freight overheads.

Grain seems the best candidate for the modern sailing vessel. (Significantly, grain was the trade in which the last commercial sailing ships were engaged.) Sail may be the best way of getting grain to parts of the world where fuel supply problems are acute. Prof. Couper again: "Much of the trade in grain is regular in direction and worldwide, and has therefore potential for sail based on the interrupted pipeline principle." Regular sailings from North American to the Sahel, for example, could help this drought-prone area build up stores of grain.

Britain's Overseas Development Ministry is working closely with a firm called Catfish Ltd. to develop an efficient twin-hulled sailboat for West African fishermen. Several are being operated successfully by Ghanaians, but Catfish's director, Edwin Gifford, is worried that buyers in the developing world will be seduced by slick sales methods into purchasing motor ships and then find that they cannot afford to run them.

The idea that sail vessels represent a step backward is shared by many of the larger shipping companies: at the RINA meeting in London the poor safety record of sail ships in the last century was mentioned. But this is to ignore the development of technological aids like stabilizers which have made sail much safer than in its heyday. The vision of crew members risking their lives in stormbattered rigging must also be dismissed -- the Dynaship Corporation in the United States, for example, has designed a vessel in which all the rigging will be controlled by hydraulic machinery.

The mariners of the previous century were also at the mercy of the weather. The modern sail captain, by contrast, will have access to accurate forecasting and be able to choose the best route.

A major criticism of the sail ship is that the rigging obstructs cargo loading and unloading. But again this is not a problem with the modern design: Hamburg University in West Germany has built and tested a square-rigger with clear deck space. Sail's detractor's also say that the money saved on oil would go to paying extra crew members needed to handle the rigging. But this would not be a problem in the developing world where labor is plentiful and relatively cheap. Sail ships are one type of "appropriate" technology which could be a valuable source of employment.

At present, square-rigged ships seem to be the best option. According to Capt. Willoughby, if such a ship were to be fitted with the most modern technology, "It could go into immediate service in direct competition with a contemporary motor ship." A recent U.S. study carried out by the University of Michigan supports this view.

It all comes down to the price, as well as the availability, of oil. If the real price of oil continues to rise -- and all the indications are that it will -- we will not need slide rules to work out the economics of a second coming of sail.