Aboard even the humblest sailboat moored in Newport Harbor, dawn breaks cool and crystal clear through a waterborne forest of masts and rigging, rung in by the chiming of halyard against spar and the chugging bustle of dinghies and lobster boats already on the run.

Afloat on the cobalt, wind-ruffled water lie schooners from New Zealand and yawls from France, Canadian cutters and Italian sloops--the fine-lined wind vessels of a dozen countries here for what is less the Super Bowl of sailing than its highest and most joyous religious festival.

To awake on the water here among the celebrants is to comprehend the magic of the feast. Trim green launches named Alert, Dispatch and Can Do shuttle ice and passengers to the boat- borne. Nubile entrepreneurs in an outboard named Bag Ladies bring orange juice and fresh croissants. The Beverage Boat brings The New York Times.

Ashore among the cedar-shingled restaurants and shops of the waterfront, throngs of Cup-hungry tourists in rugby shirts and Topsiders dicker for rides to the course offshore, while crowds of 40-foot auxiliary yachts circle the frantic fuel docks, impatient to bunker before the race.

This is America's Cup in Newport, scheduled to be concluded today, an arcane nautical ritual of brawling elegance and electric charm, dismissed by many as an effete, megabuck preoccupation of the very rich.

Such critics have a point, but only one. Those who look at beauty and see only price tags deny the relevance of wonder and dreams. They would have us believe that the first cave man who straddled a floating log and held aloft a piece of bark to catch the wind was thinking only of trade routes and social class.

If a 12-meter yacht costs $400,000, the sight of one is free, and Newport throbs this week with the sights and sounds of a city celebrating not monetary riches but the art, science and joy of wind-powered nautical endeavor.

The least happy people in town appear to be those starched and clubby syndicate partners cradled in expensive isolation atop their destroyer-sized power vessels, removed by wealth and circumstance from what's really happening. The America's Cup is no more about them than a Redskins game is about Jack Kent Cooke.

Newport belongs these days to the raucous, beer-swilling Australian crewmen in their "F---the New York Yacht Club" T shirts, to the sunny, preppy waitresses and shop girls and the muscular, bearded launch pilots; to Liberty's exuberant winch grinders and to the deck- shoed boat people rich and poor, old and young, drawn and united here by the timeless harmony of wind and sea.

One night this week at one of the town's less tony fish houses, a gray-haired man in his late 30s named Steve sat nursing a beer, counting his change and speculating on the glories of Newport.

He was no Vanderbilt, but a coordinator of elderly services for the city of Hartford, Conn., to which he would drive for two hours at day's end.

"I can't afford to stay in Newport," he said. "But I come down on day trips every day I can all summer. Just to rub shoulders with the big guys and drink it all in."

Steve by his own account makes "very, very little money," but scrimped to buy his own small sailboat, which he keeps in Noank "just to knock around."

"I'm no ocean racer, and I've never even been out to see a race. But just to walk the docks and see these incredible boats is fantastic for me. Some of them have sailed half the world to be here."

Steve pronounced the New York Yacht Club "a bunch of stuffed-shirt jerks" and had little use for the clubbier Newport archetypes, eternally garbed in lime green and navy blue "and those belts covered wit little whales."

On principle, he said, he would rather like the Australians to take the Cup, but found himself devastated by the prospect of the race's going with them. "I look forward to this race for years," he said. "I don't know what I'd do without it."

Margetty Coe, 29, of Providence feels somewhat the same.

"I was born in Rhode Island and grew up thinking the whole Cup thing a farce," said the slender, bespectacled young woman, "just something terribly social bringing hordes of tourists in to mess up our land."

Previously a non-sailor, she found herself last Sunday persuaded aboard a 40-foot sloop with friends, venturing eight miles offshore to that vast city of 2,000 boats around the race course on Block Island Sound.

There were so many she never saw the racers themselves, and couldn't be sure she saw the course. But she was on the boat in Newport Harbor later when Australia II returned at dusk, her rigging outlined against a spectacular sunset and every horn and siren on hundreds of vessels saluting her triumph.

Flares and fireworks arced overhead as she took the launch to shore, marveling up at the near passage of an ornate Chinese junk reputedly owned by a Buddhist monk.

"Tonight," she said later, with something very like wonder, "is the first time I ever understood. Now I realize what it's all about."