"Take your hat off, Jobson," Atlanta millionaire Ted Turner cracked as he turned over the steering of his racing yacht Tenacious to his protege, Gary Jobson, while heavy seas crashed onto the vessel and winds roared. "You got to hear the weather."

For the next four hours, Jobson stood hatless in the Tuesday night storm, skillfully steering the 61-foot yacht through the blasting sea.

His view from the cockpit was one of mayhem -- cresting seas, blinding wind and the glistening forms of his eight-man watch, huddled on the weather rail, obliterated periodically by mountainous waves.

From the rail, there was scarcely any view at all. Eight experienced crewmen in oilskins and seaboots simply held on for their lives, huddled side-by-side for warmth. Each awaited the next breaking wave, unpredictable in the blackness and exploding upon them like a bomb.

Tonight, the flamboyant Turner treated his crew to a provisional victory dinner, although much of the 306-boat fleet still has to finish the 600-mile Fastnet Race course. Tenacious, with a fifth-place finish, is expected to be the overall winner with the handicap scoring. The Condor of Bermuda crossed the finish line first.

No matter who takes home the trophy, this year's Fastnet Race will be remembered as the biggest disaster in ocean-racing history.

By late today, there were 17 confirmed deaths and 25 yachts sunk or abandoned in the sudden gale that hit the North Atlantic between Britain and Ireland, directly on the course of the race.

The Royal Ocean Racing Club, sponsor of the biennial race, said 13 of the dead were British, one was Dutch and one, Frank H. Ferris, was an American. The other two still were unidentified.

A spokesman for Lloyds of London, the international insurance underwriter, said, "We have never known a yachting disaster on this scale."

What has astounded and horrified the yachting world is the toll among the best-equipped and best-crewed sailboats of the day.

It fell to Alan Green of the Royal Ocean Racing Club to explain to the press today what had gone wrong.

In the face of emotional questioning by more than 100 reporters, Green steadfastly defended the race committee and the sport of sailing. The English reporters demanded to know about the "tragedy." Green repeatedly explained the "incident."

"There is no way that a race committee can call back yachts once an ocean race has begun," Green said. "This was a freak incident and we will study it to learn from it. But the sport of ocean racing will not stop."

The sport of ocean racing certainly did not stop on Tenacious, for us, that raging night.

Since 1925, the Fastnet Race has been the culmination of yachting's most famous event -- a week of international racing at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight. The Fastnet began on schedule Saturday, following the traditional gala day races, cocktail parties and fireworks, all under the eye of Queen Elizabeth II, who was on hand all week, aboard the royal yacht Brittania.

The fleet set off in good array, and by the end of the first day had entered the Irish Sea bound for the craggy Fastnet Rock, 150 miles away.

It was in the Irish Sea that things went wrong.

Jane Potts, 28, of Charlottesville, Va., had just taken the second roast from the swinging oven in the cabin of Tenacious. Ted Turner was at the helm, and the crew was preparing to drop the big spinnaker for rounding Fastnet Rock. All that remained was the recrossing of the Irish Sea.

Potts had labored all afternoon in her galley to prepare a three-course meal for 19 men.

The problem was that there was no one to feed. The off watch, usually tired and hungry, had been called on deck again, and the boat was rolling and pitching with increasing violence, threatening to douse her with boiling gravy.

Potts, literally strapped in front of her stove, could not see the activity on deck, but something was clearly going on up there. Whatever it was was ruining dinner.

"Isn't anyone going to carve the roast?" she called out to Bobby Symonette, a veteran blue-water sailor who was hurrying by to his duty station.

"My dear," replied Symonette in his calm Bahamian accent, "There are not many who will eat tonight. And those that do will be sorry."

The storm struck Tenacious a few moments later. As Turner and his crew would learn only later, it struck the entire fleet simultaneously, and it struck with the force of a B52 attack. More than 140 sailors would require rescue by Royal Navy helicopters and search vessels of every description before the night was over.

The wind eventually would gust to 70 miles an hour, but at the moment it was just a strong racing breeze, getting stronger.

"We're in the lead now, and we're going to win the whole thing," Turner was chortling at the wheel. "We set the course record here in 1972, Squad, and now we're gonna set the record again."

Within a few hours, however, Turner found his boat battling not only for the lead, but for its life. Heeled far over, Tenacious, a strongly constructed vessel, smashed through ever-increasing waves and a wind that howled like a hungry animal on the scent of meat. Turner, as is his style, howled back, his hair streaming in the driving rain, his hands spinning the wheel with more and more urgency as he fought for control.

At 8 p.m. he turned the steering over to Jobson of Annapolis, his 29-year-old protege and the tactician for Turner's 1977 America's Cup victory. Air temperature: 55 degrees. Wind speed: 55 knots.

Just hours later, thoroughly blinded, choked and deafened by the furious storm, the watch encountered a sight more horrifying that the largest waves: a string of tiny red and green lights, winking feebly through the foam dead ahead.

Tenacious had rounded Fastnet Rock with the leaders. Now, on her way back she would have to sail -- only barely under control -- head on through the rest of the fleet. Jobson, his eyes bleeding salt water, could not see. From the fail came desperate shouts: "Bear away. Bear away. Boat dead ahead. BOAT DEAD AHEAD!"

The other boats careered by, one at a time, and through the raging night only dim outlines could be seen. But if the 61-foot Tenacious was pressed to the limits, the smaller boats must be pressed beyond. Twenty-five of them were.

It was about that time, there in the Irish Sea, that a wave swept over the 35-foot yacht Flashlight, carrying two crewmen to their deaths.

Elsewhere in the gale, a 37-footer named Rophy began sinking, and its crew took to a life raft. The life raft split, however, and two of the crew drifted away and drowned. When rescue came, a crewman remaining in the raft already had died of exposure.

One of the top-seeded boats in the fleet, an Irish racer named Golden Apple of the Sun, was so badly damaged that all 10 of the crew were taken off by helicopter.

Throughout the fleet, crewmen were washed from their boats only to be saved by their safety harnesses. On one boat the helmsman, clinging to the wheel, was washed overboard wheel and all.

Sometime that night an American sailor died. The yacht Ariadne, reportedly owned by Frank H. Ferris, an American living in London, went down, with four crewmen.

Of the 12 other boats from the United States, all came through. Jim Kilroy's 79-foot Kialoa blasted safely through the storm, but Kilroy suffered five cracked ribs. The U.S. Naval Academy yacht Alliance, crewed by midshipmen, arrived safely today.

All three of the U.S. boats on the Admiral's Cup team -- Williwaw, Aries and Imp -- finished the race, although it seemed they would place second to the Australian team in the standings.

Turner pressed on, refusing to strike all sail and heave to. The Tenacious made nine knots throughout the storm.

Each eight-man watch stood four hours on, then four hours off. Chilled to the bone, the men fell below decks to rest, only to find the normally quiet cabin a swinging, sodden world of seasickness and broken gear. Crewmen fell into their bunks with oilskins still buttoned to the neck, then they were thrown out again by the boat's next lurch.

Dawn came wild to the Irish Sea that morning. First light proved more scary than darkness, as the 30-foot seas could be seen rising overhead and breaking like beach surf, leaving the yacht to hurtle through foam as thick and white as new-fallen snow.

In the early afternoon, Turner, who is not immune to seasickness, emerged from the head and called to the deck, where the scene was still furious.

"What's the wind down to now? It's got to be down to forty knots now."

There was no reply.

"Get the damn mainsail back up," Turner thundered, obviously hoping to restore some stability to the ship.

Before long Jane Potts had returned to her stove and found a carver for her roast, and sandwiches were passed around. A few jokes, mostly injurious to those who had been sick in spectacular ways, took flight.

The last 100 miles was a downwind run under spinnaker, and the finish line was crossed under a bright moon exactly 79 hours, 52 minutes and 22 seconds after the start at Cowes on Saturday.

Tonight the Tenacious crew celebrates quietly, not sure whether they have won in the scoring.

When Turner's yacht docked last night, they knew they had been through more than just another gruelling Fastnet Race. Immediately as the boat touched shore here, one crewman leaped off and ran to the race office for news of the competition. When he returned, smiles on board faded.

"My God," he reported, stunned. "There's a crowd of people up there and they're all crying and they ask you if you have heard anything about their husbands, or their boyfriends. It's like a tragedy here, not like a race."