YOU MUST IMAGINE morning in a summer harbor somewhere along the Eastern seaboard: Martha's Vineyard, Newport, Block Island, Long Island Sound. It is 7:30 and calm. More than a hundred large sailing yachts are anchored close together. Aside from the slight breeze bothering the water and tapping errant halyards, there is not a sound. A fleet asleep. It is 1956, and if an era is ending, no sign of it troubles the slumber of the New York Yacht Club on its annual cruise.

A few of the more zealous crew members are up and about, dressed in the standard "kit" of khaki pants, khaki shirt and black wool tie. They pad around barefoot, wiping the dew with chamois squares -- wiping it from varnished rails, varnished cabin sides, varnished seats, varnished everything, it seems. They know that this wipe-down has to be done at least once a day to preserve the finish -- a knowledge that will disappear with the coming years; and it has to be done quietly, for senior men sleep below.

Then, at precisely 7:55, foredeck hatches all over the fleet pop open and figures spring to the deck with the quickness of long practice. At 8 a.m., with precision good enough for sextant work, someone, either on the commodore's yacht or ashore at the host yacht club, yanks a white linen cord attached to the firing pin of a brass cannon, and a single salute shocks the morning air. Before the smoke has drifted more than a few yards, 100 sets of flags, first the U. S. yacht ensign with anchor and 13 stars, then the club flag, then the owner's private signal, adorn each masthead and stern. It is a point of pride -- heads would shake in scorn for the crew that has not "made colors" in time.

I was 16 years old that summer, a small and pudgy schoolboy, not fat, but glad of a shirt. Most of my sailing had been done in 12-foot, gaff-rigged open boats,or on the pages of books. I had read everything I could find, from John Masefield's "Bird of Dawning" (which contains the finest chewing out of a mate by a captain ever penned) through Richard Maury's "The Saga of Cimba" to Clinton Crane's "Yachting Memories."

Into that 16th summer came a miracle in the form of a telephone call from a friend of my father. My father was a notable sailor to the end of his long life, and a voyage of his in the '20s became a book called "Blue Water"; he was fond of sitting in the main cabin with a necktie on, smoking and drinking straight rum, and he never went ashore if he could help it during his summer holiday. In short, he was an inspiration.

But the call had come from an even more august personage, Henry Francis Sears, or "Big Harry," as he was called. Harry Sears had owned a string of yachts, all named Actaea, and he was commodore of the NYYC. He was also the father of "Little" Harry, a classmate of mine at prep school. He offered a berth aboard Actaea for the entire NYYC cruise. Some deal had been struck between fathers, because neither Little Harry nor I would have been chosen to row a ship's cook across a canal, much less tussle with the sails of Actaea, in any fair account of talent.

But I came to believe that I must be a mighty good sailor to attract the great man's favor. This belief remained even when it should have become clear that Harry Jr. and I were on board mainly as cabin boys. No, we were Actaea crew, we were going on The Cruise.

The New York Yacht Club Cruise has become, in the mid-'80s, a hot racing event, with all the competitiveness of the grand-prix ocean-racing crowd. But then it was still a social as well as a sporting event, anchored with adamantine chains on the calendar for the first two weeks in August, when most of the New York yachting nabobs, bankers, brokers, lawyers, shipping men and the like took their holiday.

The cruise usually went one of three circuits: Long Island Sound and the islands of Block, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket and Newport; or the southern Massachusetts ports; or down to Maine. Every day there was racing, except on "lay" days, which were a breather. Every evening there were revels, private or club-wide, and sometimes dances on shore as each yacht club did its best to host the senior club and its fleet by drenching the crews in liquor, winding them round with music and summoning the prettiest of its tanned daughters to the seaside.

After all, the NYYC was the club of the biggest fleet, of the most swan boats, of the most daring, impeccable skippers, of the glossiest varnish, the cleanest, purest colors of paint, most snapping flags, biggest green cigars, shiniest brass.

Its cruise had such stature that the club thought nothing of scheduling the America's Cup match to be over in time for the competing yachts to join. The club, in 1956, had a fleet of about 150 yachts, all of the best. And every craft that wore the triangular blue flag with a red cross and white star was meant to be kept to what was called "club standard."

There were flags for everything. The commodore flew his pennant, as did the vice-commodore and the rear-commodore. There was a special flag, all stars, no bars, to be flown on Sundays only. There was a flag to denote "owner not aboard" so that no visitor would make a fruitless trip in the launch. There was a flag to say "yacht under charter" so that old friends would not be confused by unlikely faces. There was even a flag for "crew at dinner" on some magnificos, so that visitors could time their visits for full service from crew, steward and cook.

Those were the days before chrome-plated deck fittings. Most skippers preferred bronze for cleats, winches, mastbands, chocks, thresholds, portholes, marlin-spikes, binnacles and all the other metal esoterica of sail. These items had to be shined each day, for it was one of the finest combinations of colors to see a highly shined cleat on a well-varnished cockpit coaming. For the crew it meant as many as 80 pieces to "go round" with Oxford-brand polish and a piece of cotton waste. By evening, of course, spray, hot hands, salt air would turn these golden nuggets back to purple, red and blue.

Later, when I grew up, I frequently heard the club excoriated for snobbery, elitism, bossism, racism, anti-Semitism and if-we-can't-win-the-race-change-the-rulesism. These things were doubtless true. . . . But they were not always true. I can clearly recall my father's chagrin over his inability to promote the membership of a fine yachtsman of a famous European Jewish family in the early 1950s. But that was then. The club has changed, and a recent commodore, Emil (Bus) Mosbacher, is of Jewish descent, though Episcopalian in religion. The club even admitted Atlanta media tycoon Ted Turner in the '70s, though that must have interrupted a good many sound digestions. As for the less serious charges, they were brought almost wholly by Australians, and we know what they were after.

Those who were most snob in the '50s were not the members but their hired crews, who behaved in the manner of British valets and were able to turn up their noses at the tiniest flaws -- say, a yacht not equipped with fitted decksheets that were used to protect teak decks when ignorant landsmen were invited aboard. Decksheets! Who now has heard of them?

In those days, things were done differently.

Commodore Sears had a profesional captain, a 38-year-old Scot, Alex McCleod, to run the yacht and supervise the crew down to the smallest detail. In the matter of those black neckties, for instance, "th' cravat moost na be glossy," said McCleod, to whom America was a constant worry and wonder. He had a dense accent and arms that looked like legs of mutton. He never failed to draw admiring glances from the fleet's daughters, and he met them with a Scot's poetic lechery. He would begin each conversation with the foredeck crew by announcing, "This is goddam chaos."

The commodore regarded the 40-foot Actaea, which seemed enormous to me, as just a day-boat. Not only for comfort, but for the entertainment duties which fell to his lot as commodore, Sears had chartered the 110-foot motor yacht Big Pebble, one of those serene straight-bowed, teak girt houseboats that were built in the '20s and smelled of varnish, port and sun-baked tropical hardwoods. Big Pebble was the dormitory, officers' mess and cocktail lounge for the senior members of the crew. For us, she was the sail locker and occasional shower room. We stayed on Actaea in stiff wool blankets and narrow berths.

Racing was a comparatively genteel affair, if only because most of the top racing men knew each other well, and there was a definite order of peck in the fleet. It would be an affront to some chain of being for a younger skipper to obnoxiously insist on rights accorded under the racing rules if there were not a good cause, like two boats fighting it out for top place. There were almost never any collisions, and few protests. In fact the style of racing was considered as important as the results. It was good to have perfect crew work and "smart" boat handling and not so important to finish first. The highest compliment for a skipper was that he had consistency, that he finished, as they would say, "there, or thereabouts."

For Harry and me, the races were agony. Actaea had won the New London-Newport race the season before and was fast if well manned. But she was not well-manned. Harry and I did most things wrong on the foredeck and so were delegated to the sheet winches. But whatever post, we made mistakes and were shuttled to where it seemed the least damage to Actaea's progress would result. Still we wrapped spinnakers, fouled jib sheets, twisted hanks and jammed knots often enough.

Commodore Sears was a tall red-headed man with close-cropped hair, an entirely freckled complexion, and eyes the palest, iciest blue. His voice was rich and melodic, and what he said most often was "Myyyyyy Christ." He tried to ignore mistakes, but little by little, his famous temper would rise from some point beneath his perfect shirt, which he wore under a blazer, and mount to his hairline. He was capable of giving a shove that was almost a hit, grabbing a sheet, and shouting, "you damn fool." But most of the time he would remain at the tiller, steering with small moccasin-clad feet and leaning against the backstay in fury.

But his was the character that could close a chapter. By the time we had got to the anchorage, he would be in a good temper and could expound on his favorite topics, often how much it cost to be commodore (the charter of Big Pebble was $1,000 a week) and what a waste of time most of the duties were. He was a sailor first.

All club parties were the same: a broad lawn, a tent of canvas, and a free bar. To a 16-year-old, it seemed brazen to be able to get bottles of beer with impunity from a servant in a starched white cotton jacket. It was still, then, the custom for men to load on the liquor until awash, yet most NYYC members were the same, cold sober or dead drunk; "standing drunk" and "rowing drunk" were definitions.

Dinner was often held on Big Pebble, in a paneled dining room with a chef in residence. The commodore, of course, was at the head of the table and frequently seemed slightly bored to be listening either to stories he had heard so many times before or to wives who did not sail but knew he was important. Casual dress for dinner in those days meant white trousers, blazer, white shirt, dark tie; not an easy outfit to mount from a wooden locker within Actaea. The whites had to stay that way for the duration, so Harry and I planned every motion to avoid sauce.

And when night fell at last! Then the lights of the fleet were a galaxy and club launches plyed the harbor. The clubs that the NYYC visited -- like the Edgartown YC, the Nantucket YC, the Eastern YC in Marblehead, Mass., the Ida Lewis YC at Newport and some others -- usually had launch service which ended at midnight or 1 a.m.

This was no impediment in those free and easy days, thanks to the dinghy "system." Many salty types in the club refused the blandishments of docks and marinas. They anchored in the harbor and rowed ashore, by every flick of their perfectly turned and varnished oar showing their seamanship. Dinghies were never locked and thus were available to those caught ashore past launch hours; but it was the code that whoever borrowed a dinghy returned it -- by rowing out to his own boat, getting his own dinghy (or in extremis the dinghy of the closest boat), towing that in, returning the borrowed dingy and rowing home. The lament of the old timers is: "When nobody locked a dinghy, nobody lacked a dinghy."

There was a lot of rowing, some of it in hilarious conditions of drunkenness in the slender, staring hours after midnight, and some of it just at dusk, simply to admire the other yachts of the fleet.

And what yachts! These were no fiberglass trinkets stamped out in factories like bottles, with aluminum masts rattling in the wind, but individual souls, carved and sawed from mahogany and oak, fastened with bronze or iron, dubbed with oakum, smoothed, puttied, polished, and painted by men who knew.

Men praised them as if they were alive, particularly the hired hands, who knew every joint and foible of their own particular charges, as if the boats were beautiful children with wonderful lives ahead. "Built of mahogany," one such would say to inquiring youths, "double planked, with hackmatack knees and oak frames, teak decks, sitka spruce spars. Fastened with Everdur (a type of bronze), smooth as a bottle, tight as a drum."

Actually the commodore's Actaea, a Concordia 40-foot cutter, was one of the first of the new generation of boat coming into the fleet -- boats of a type rather than a name. Still, she had been beautifully and reverently built in 1953 by Abeking & Rassmussen in Germany. She was paneled in knotty pine and fitted together so carefully that the same boats today are worth many times the building price.

In 1956 the costs of yachting were first beginning to be felt by the members of the fleet. Commodore Sears, for example, had never owned a boat so small. His previous Actaea had been a 60-foot sloop, which he sold to another NYYC Commodore by the name of Morgan. Morgan renamed her Djiin, an example of the clean, simple names these wooden yachts used to have.

There was Commodore De Coursey Fales' Nina, built in 1928 and still winning races in the '60s; the 12 meters Vim, Gleam, and Nereus; the big yawls Baruna and Bolero and Good News, all 70-footers; Richard Nye's immortal Carina II, driven so hard in Europe during a Fastnet race that she nearly sank and still won; Howard Fuller's Gesture, a cutter of such beauty that I used to avert my eyes; the NYYC 32-footers Mustang, Sapphire and Spookie; the schooners Lord Jim, Bounding Home, Brilliant and Mistress. Among the smaller yachts was the great racer Finisterre, owned by Carleton Mitchell, now of Annapolis, the only yacht ever to win the Bermuda race three times in a row, and my favorites, the flush-deck 39-footer Storm and the double winner of the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit, Hoot Mon.

Each of these yachts had a history, and sometimes a story that has a particular NYYC twist -- as in the case of George Roosevelt's big black schooner Mistress, which was even then an anachronism because the old man would not allow an engine aboard -- too smelly and noisy, he'd say. So a tender had to be dispatched to tow him during calms.

More famous was the Mistress tale which told how the schooner did not respond, one morning on the cruise, to the signals for "harbor start" or the procedure of up anchor and off to the day's racing. When a passing yachtsman hailed to ask if anything was wrong, he was told that Mr. Roosevelt didn't intend to start racing until he had finished his breakfast. This, it was rumored, was two boiled eggs. The race committee lingered on the starting line while the schooner bustled out, half an hour late for class, and sailed over the course, resolutely last.

Those who live in a golden day never know it as such and complain as much as those who live in a desperate day. So let it be . . . . I floated through the last golden age of sailing, though at the time all I heard from my elders were complaints about the passing of the good old days before.

Where did it all go -- the remnants of the '30s, the teak and the khaki, the uniforms? The flags have gone, for on most modern yachts there is no place for them at the top of aluminum masts crammed with spinnaker cranes, VHF aerials, windseekers and wind speed indicators. The flags are not efficient for racing, and the New York Yacht Club has become an organization centered on racing.

Harry Sears, who was syndicate head for Columbia, which won the first modern America's Cup contest against the British 12-meter Sceptre in 1958, must take some of the responsibility for the change.

He thought that the 12-meter contests would revive the America's Cup, and he was right. In '62, the Australians tried and failed, in '64 the British again, in '67 the Australians. With America's Cups coming at three-year intervals, fund-raising became crucial. By the mid-'60s, members were complaining about the gold-digging. By 1970, the club had awakened from its sleepy complacence, and its ost important function -- at least in the eyes of the world -- was the defense of the America's Cup.

The result has been more more admission of racing men (like Dennis Conner of the ill-fated '83 Cup defense) and less spit and polish. There would be no more cannons and brass.

One August day in 1970, as the fleet assembled in Vineyard Sound, off Wood's Hole, Mass., for the day's "squadron run" to Nantucket, a tall sloop, painted bright red, lay dead in the water near the committee boat, sail covers on, rolling gently in the chop. It was Ted Turner's American Eagle. Turner, the bad boy of yachting, had been knocking on the club's doors for years. It was rumored he had been blackballed, which was enough, in the old days, to create suicidal depression. But Turner just kept asking to be admitted.

That day on the cruise, nobody who followed racing could fail to see his point. Here was this gorgeous racing machine, fresh from victory in the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit, bound for further triumphs. And her owner barred from membership. Turner was simply rubbing it in. In due course, he was admitted. That Turner, a Southerner, a man whose crews wore tee-shirts with the word "Chickenshit" on them, a man who painted his boat red, who could find no joy in finishing "there, or thereabouts" could become a member. . . .

Now the cruise is a racing event, and gaudy spectacle mounts in Australia for the next America's Cup races. It was a bitter irony that the club which revived 12-meter racing should have changed forever and prostrated itself financially only to have lost its greatest prize. As a chorus of shellback ghosts would say, "That's a boat race."