MARSAXLOKK BAY, MALTA, DEC. 2 -- The public relations dream of a seaborne summit under sunny skies with a friendly Mediterranean island as a backdrop turned into a logistical disaster here today as gale force storms forced President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to cancel large chunks of their program. The U.S. commander in chief was marooned aboard the USS Belknap this afternoon, unable to leave the 8,575-ton guided missile cruiser for a planned meeting with the Soviet leader because of seven-foot waves and gusts of wind so strong that nobody was able to embark or disembark. The White House press office issued a statement saying that communications aboard the Belknap, anchored in the middle of normally peaceful Marsaxlokk Bay, were working and the president was in touch with Washington. Things were even worse 400 yards away aboard the Soviet cruiser Slava, chosen to co-host the summit because of its space-based communications systems that have made it the pride of the Soviet navy. Gorbachev was forced to abandon several attempts to reach the 11,000-ton cruiser, taking refuge on the Soviet passenger liner Maxim Gorky, which was docked in the harbor. In one of the few concrete gestures of superpower cooperation to emerge from the first day of the shipwrecked summit, the White House statement said U.S. and Soviet weather forecasters aboard the two warships were pooling information. The weather -- the harshest Maltese residents could recall for the past five years -- forced the two leaders to cut their time together from nearly 10 hours to five. An afternoon meeting aboard the Slava and dinner for both delegations aboard the Belknap were canceled because of the 60-mile-per-hour winds. After days of speculation about Soviet or American initiatives at the seaborne summit, the first such meeting in the Bush administration, the biggest surprise of all has turned out to be the natural elements. Brought together after a year of historic change in Eastern Europe, the leaders of the two greatest military powers on Earth proved helpless when faced with the challenge of crossing a thin stretch of turbulent water. The irony of the occasion was captured by Gorbachev in comments to reporters this morning aboard the Maxim Gorky just before the opening session with Bush, which had been switched from the Slava. Asked whether he was going to propose arms reductions, the Soviet leader joked: "The first thing to do is to eliminate those types of ships which you cannot board in this kind of weather." "We will have a secret agenda in this way to disarm the 6th Fleet," joked Gorbachev, who called for reductions in superpower naval forces in the Mediterranean earlier this week during a visit to Italy. Strapped for hard currency reserves, the Kremlin dispached the 630-foot Maxim Gorky to Malta for use as a floating hotel for Soviet officials and journalists traveling with Gorbachev. The ship, which had been hastily repaired after it rammed an iceberg off Norway last June with 900 people aboard, was used as an impromptu summit venue after the Slava was put out of action. Crowds of sightseers spent the afternoon trying to catch signs of the drama aboard the three ships from the coastal road that snakes around Malta's rocky southeastern coast. At one point, half a dozen windsurfers braved force 6 (25 to 31 mph) gusts and approached the Belknap before being warned away by the U.S. Navy. "Of course it's very dangerous. We are crazy," said Anthony Desiro, one of the windsurfers. "But I don't know why they turned us away. We're not interested in the summit. We just want to windsurf." Dozens of U.S. and Soviet flags were ripped from their staffs around the island by the winds, which reached force 8 (39 to 46 mph) at times during the afternoon. Roads were submerged under several feet of water and boats bobbed up and down like corks in a choppy bathtub. The wind was so ferocious on the deck of the Maxim Gorky that it blew the eyeglasses off a Soviet staffer. Stranded on the Belknap, amid the martial splendor of Harpoon anti-ship missiles and Mark-46 torpedoes, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater sent word to several thousand journalists that he was forced to cancel a scheduled evening briefing. He offered "an exclusive presidential interview" to "any reporter who can get to the Belknap in the next 15 minutes" -- with the prize raised to three interviews for "any reporter who swims." The chief Kremlin spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov, would have been able to make it to the briefing since he was aboard the Maxim Gorky, safely tied up in the harbor. But, in another gesture of superpower cooperation that brought almost audible sighs of relief from the White House news managers, he decided not to appear in the press headquarters in the Maltese capital, Valletta, "out of solidarity" with Fitzwater. "I can't upstage Marlin," Gerasimov told reporters allowed onto the Maxim Gorky to cover this afternoon's aborted meeting. Bush's 700-yard trip to the Belknap this afternoon across Marsaxlokk Bay after his meeting with Gorbachev on the Maxim Gorky turned into a much more exciting outing than any White House advance man anticipated. The admiral's barge carrying the president and his four top aides -- Fitzwater, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and Secretary of State James A. Baker III -- had to make half a dozen passes at the Belknap before it was finally able to dock. Onlookers observing the scene through binoculars and telephoto lenses from the shore could observe Secret Service agents with arms outstretched guarding the president as if he were the target of an assassination attempt by the elements. But Bush, who owns a 27-foot cigarette boat that he frequently pilots around the ocean off his Maine vacation home, appeared to take the choppy seas in his stride and bounded up the gangplank of the Belknap. "The president likes this sort of thing," said presidential image-maker Sig Rogich, putting the best face possible on the devastation wrought by nature on his elaborately planned summit backdrops. "He probably wishes he had his speedboat out here." White House aides on the Maxim Gorky watched in dismay as the admiral's barge bobbed up and down, disappearing beneath the trough of every passing wave. Members of the Belknap's 477-man crew observed the drama from the quarterdeck, rushing from one side of the deck to the other as the little boat flying the presidential emblem circled the gray cruiser. Soviet officials abandoned an attempt to reach the Slava, anchored in rougher seas than the Belknap, a few moments later. The 613-foot Soviet ship, bristling with cruise missile systems, artillery installations and automatic guns, had to be held in place by two Maltese tugs since it was drifting dangerously at anchor. The raging winds left some officials and reporters stranded in unlikely places. A television camera crew was seen marooned on top of an oil derrick overlooking the harbor; what would have been a superb vantage point in sunny weather had been transformed into a frightening prison. White House and State Department officials were caught on the Maxim Gorky, unable either to reach the Belknap or even talk to their superiors on secure phone lines. Reporters allowed onto the Maxim Gorky said that Gorbachev appeared unhappy and disgruntled over the curtailing of meetings that have been a major goal of Soviet diplomacy since it was first proposed by Bush in mid-July. With nothing to do and unable to communicate with Moscow from the Slava, which is fitted out as a Kremlin office away from home, the Soviet leader paced impatiently around the cruise ship. Even when the sun is shining, this former British colony in the middle of the Mediterranean tends to resemble an English seaside resort, with red telephone booths, fish-and-chip stores, driving on the left and bed-and-breakfast establishments with names like Seaview Boarding House. The quality of Englishness was reinforced by the torrential downpour and gloomy skies. The 350,000 Maltese have reacted to the summit with a mixture of enthusiasm and fatalism, turning out at midnight last night to give Gorbachev a rousing welcome in Valletta but shrugging their shoulders at the weather. There is a consensus that no visitors have so excited Malta since the Knights of St. John arrived in 1530 -- with the possible exception of a brief visit from Napoleon in 1798. Stridently neutral, Malta has never allowed Soviet warships into its strategically located harbors and ports. The Belknap is the first U.S. warship to visit the island since former Labor prime minister Dom Mintoff embarked on his policy of tweaking the West by flirting with Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi 17 years ago. "Gadhafi came here three or four times, but he didn't make much impression on us. It's much more exciting to have Gorbachev and Bush here," said businessman John Sammut as he looked out at the Belknap and the Slava. The weather forecasters, meanwhile, were predicting that the winds would probably subside on Sunday. Standing in front of a sign that read "Give peace a chance," Agnes Formosa was not so sure. "Usually this kind of wind lasts three or four days. Most probably it will be nice and sunny again by Monday, the day after they've all gone home," she said.