It was the Christmas holiday talk of Virginia's Northern Neck: an uncommon concurrence of events that brought three duck hunters as close to untimely deaths as could be remembered in that sparsely populated peninsula, where the surrounding Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers and Chesapeake Bay dictate a way of life.

"The story deserves to be told," says West Jones, one of the hunters' fathers, the proprietor of the "Eagle's Nest," virtually the only tavern/restaurant in the Lancaster County seat of Kilmarnock. "There are some lessons to be learned."

A 15-foot wooden boat had been built by Mac Jones expecially for duck hunting. Its deck was covered, except for a narrow hole in the middle, to provide a base for brush camouflage. Two weeks after its completion aNd four days before Christmas, at 6:30 a.m., Jones, 21, Bernard Ticer, 23, also of Kilmarnock, and Fred Stamm, 36, of nearby Irvington, took the boat-cum-blind out into Indian Creek, one of the Northern Neck's countless tidal inlets. They would be back before noon.

Mistake No. 1, according to Wes Jones, who has been around boats most of his life, involved his son's understandable desire to speed the boat's completion - the anchor cleats on bow and stern were screwed on, not bolted.

Mistake No. 2 was the low level of fuel in the boat's motor - only a quarter tank. But normally that would have been plenty for a short trip laying close to the shore, for the land would take the full force of the heavy northwest winds and the waves would only be ripples.

The trouble was that the hunting was good, too good - five ducks and geese, which meant the boat had to be motored about to fetch them. About 75 yards offshore, south of Barnes Creek, they ran out of fuel.

No big deal, they thought. Like most Northern Neck residents, they were no strangers to the ways of water. They would simply anchor and wait for the tide to fall so they could wade ashore.

While waiting they put the sides of the blind up to block the wind, but it also blocked their view of what was happening to the anchor cleat. When they finally realized that it had been ripped out, they were far offshore.

Where the water depth drops from five feet to 30 feet at Indian Creek's mouth, there is a stationary marker, a 15-foot steel column with four-second flasher and radar reflectors to warn sialors of the Bluff Point shoals. The boat bumped against it and Jones grabbed the bottom rung of the market's ladder hoping to lash the boat to it.

But the wind and waves suddenly separated him from the boat. As Jones clung to the ladder, Stamm and Ticer were blown out into the bay.

They didn't know it at the time, but they were lucky. Had Jones remained on board, the boat surely would have swamped, for the waves would become as high as 12 feet with winds gusting up to 45 miles per hour. Stamm and Ticer threw everything overboard they could to lighten the load. And they huddled to keep dry and warm.

There was nothing else Stamm and Ticer could do except wait and hope. Their lives were literally in the winds of fate.

Perched on his refuge, Jones too could only wait. After climbing the ladder to the market's top, he tossed out the beacon's batteries for a space to put his legs and pulled up the rader reflectors as a wind shield.

Meanwhile, on shore, the search had begun. It would have begun earlier had the two people who had known the duck hunters' plans been less trusting of their abilities and of the elements. It was now late afternoon. The Coast Guard was alerted.

The wind chill that night brought the temperature down well below zero. Stamm's body temperature dropped to 89 degrees, medical authorities said later.

Ticer, however, stayed relatively warm, due to a $35 suit of insulated underware, purchased only a few days earlier despite family criticism for his "extravagance." His "chubby" physique helped too, said doctors.

At one o'clock the next morning, the boat surfed ashore 30 miles away on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay, near the Eastern Shore town of Silver Beach. Ticer ran for help. Soon he and Stamm were in the Nassawadox Hospital, and the Coast Guard knew that the third missing hunter, Jones, was on a stationary marker around the mouth of Indian Creek. But which one?

In the story's final irony, Jones' sanctuary became a beacon through its very darkness. His father had earlier reported that the normally pulsating light was extinguished. The reason was now obvious.

"You're beautiful," Mac Jones greeted his rescuers as they lowered him from his cramped haven.

Jones like Ticer, was in reasonably good condition, and was released from a local hospital after observation. Stamm, in critical condition, was transferred to Norfolk General, but his limbs did not have to amputated, as had been feared at first. He's now at home in a wheelchair, expected to recover fully.