Fifteen years ago, Bud Wood, a real estate man from Easton, Md., helped deliver a 42-foot motor boat down the Intracoastal Waterway from Chesapeake Bay to its winter home in Florida.

He enjoyed the trip, but had the feeling it would have been much better in a small boat.

That idea gnawed at him over the years, and the more he talked about it, the more he found others who shared his feeling.

"Everybody said the same thing -- 'Wouldn't it be great in a small boat?' -- but I never could find anybody willing to try it," said Wood.

Last fall, he was negotiating to buy a 22-foot outboard motorboat from Fred Quimby at Nautical Marine in Easton.

"We worked out all the particulars," said the 48-year-old Wood, "and then I hit him with the clincher. 'I'll buy it,' I told him, 'but only if you agree to take your boat down the waterway with me, all the way to Conch Key."

The deal was struck. Quimby and his 18-year-old son Scott would take their 21-foot Mako, and Wood and his 19-year-old son Roo would be in the new 22-footer.

They left on the tail end of a half-day hurricane that hit the Bay late in September and roared 1,247 miles in six days and five nights. They slept under canvas covers by the light of the moon and "the wrath of the rain," as Wood put it. "We called it the Mako Hilton, Suites 21 and 22."

They crossed big bays and little inlets, marshes and creeks, and wound up 421 gallons of gasoline later in a winter paradise, none the worse for wear.

"Folks treated us like orphans," said Wood. "We'd pull into a place and get talking to people. We'd tell them what we were up to and they looked at us like we'd had too much to drink.

"But when we explained it, they'd say, 'You know, we always wanted to do that ourselves.' And they kind of took us under their wing."

For those unfamiliar with it, the inland waterway is a series of dug canals and natural waterways that winds along the East Coast from New England to Florida, providing a protected route north and south for those disinclined to venture into the ocean.

It is dredged and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, and served during World War II as a route of commerce for ships avoiding the perils of enemy submarines lurking offshore.

Commerce on the waterway is minimal these days. Most traffic now is big pleasure boats going north and south between the summer and winter cruising grounds of the Atlantic.

The waterway's nickname among these big-boat skippers is "the ditch." They regard it as a safe but boring service road for coastal travel. But those with an eye for the natural beauties of river systems, marshes and backwaters see something wonderful about the waterway -- something best observed from a little boat.

"We were basically making time this trip," said Wood, "feeling out the boat and getting our bearings. But when we go back, we're going to take our time. We'll bring our bird books, fishing gear and camping stuff. We'll stop at the Golden Isles of Georgia, maybe run up the New Bern River in North Carolina, and I want to run the Florida back country up to Key Largo."

Wood's overall view of the waterway? "Absolutely beautiful."

Having run a good portion of it two years ago delivering a sailboat north from Florida, I agree.

But a relatively small, fast boat to travel in is appealing for a couple of reasons: It provides quicker passages in the less scenic, dug canals that connect natural waterways, and a small boat can avoid long waits for bridge tenders to open their draws at most road crossings, which are numerous.

I've often wondered why no entrepreneur has yet organized a charter boat concession for the waterway, along the lines of the European canal boats.

By renting a boat in the 25-foot range from such a service, a medium-sized family could meander the back country of the waterway in the Dismal Swamp region of North Carolina, down the wild Waccamaw River in South Carolina, along the marshy Sea Isles of Georgia or up and down the fertile Indian River behind Cape Canaveral here in Florida.

There's very little danger in the waterway, outside the inconvenience of occasional groundings. "I've never been on a body of water in my life that was better marked," Wood said.

Wood's destination was Poseidon Harbor, a little marina and motel on this tiny island in the Florida Keys where efficiency motel units rent for $50 a night and you tie your boat up right outside your room.

He's driven down twice so far this winter to fish. When I arrived a few days ago, he had his brother Larry and young Kenny Bryan from Easton with him, and we four went straight to work catching snappers and grunts out of the azure water for our dinner.

That was fun. But what Wood is really looking forward to is April, when he gets to tackle the waterway again.

Nice and slowly, this time.