OCEAN SAILING is a rough, risky sport, and the 605-mile Fastnet race is one of the roughest and riskiest of them all. Yet even by those special standards there was nothing normal about the storm that savaged the Admiral's Cup fleet on Tuesday, Leaving 17 sailors dead and about two dozen boats lost or abandoned to the Irish Sea. It was a blow of such ferocity -- one survivor called it "mayhem" -- that landlubbers are left marveling at the luck, seamanship and rescue work that brough most of the 2,000 sailors and 300 boats safely through.

Besides its human toll, what makes this disaster so arresting is the character of the fleet that nature attacked. These were not casual sailors out for a leisurely ride. They were highly skilled yachtsmen in finely tuned craft, accustomed to racing on the edge of danger and conquering the sea. And on Tuesday the Atlantic reared up and overwhelmed all their assumptions of competence and mastery.

There is much speculation now about whether the losses might have been reduced by requiring all the racers to carry radios and stay in touch, or by barring the smaller, lighter boats and less experienced sailors from the race. All this is very human -- and very wishful, a sad search for more control over the details of a sport that the best equipment and strictest rules cannot make safe. In few other ventures, except polar exploration and mountain climbing, do people put themselves so fully at the mercy of nature in places where nature is not known for being kind.

Sailors live at the sufferance of the sea, a force as untamable as their own impulse to challenge it. That was easier to remember back when going to sea really meant going out of reach, and losses were more commonplace. But the Atlantic has provided two humbling reminders recently, for the same ocean that smashed the Fastnet fleet this week did let a lone man sail successfully from Virginia to England in a homemade 10-foot boat.