THE FIRST THING they tell a visitor to the new Chesapeake Academy of Traditional Boatbuilding and Design is that they got the name wrong.

"There's no such thing as traditional boatbuilding any more and there never will be," said David W. Dana, technical director of the school.

"There is very little good wood left in this world, and the competition for it is cutthroat. The Japanese have bought all the spruce, the Arabs have bought all the teak, the great white oaks are nearly all gone and the only place you can find big timbers of longleaf yellow pine is in abandoned New England shoe factories."

Dana, whose face at 58 is intricately etched from weathering long watches at sea and long pulls at Myers's 151 rum, slapped his straightedge on the drafting table and looked out over the tin roofs of the town of Mathews Courthouse on Virginia's Northern Neck, where the academy set up shop in an abandoned hotel last May.

"These kids come here with their heads all screwed around. They're into the simple life, back to nature, and God bless 'em for it. But they think we're going to teach them how to go out in the woods with an axe and (unprintable) adze and chop down a tree and build a boat and go sailing off into the sunset.

"Well, if they stay here two years and work real hard and listen up, they probably could do it, but what the hell is that? This is a real world, and you can't make a living building traditional wooden boats. Even if you could get the materials, nobody has got enough money to pay for such a boat.

"And if some nut came through the door and started shoveling money at you, you still couldn't build him as fine a boat as you can produce with laminates and modern methods. Not everything that's new is bad."

"Yeah, I blew the name," conceded Frank Riordan, 43, founder of the academy, who is bigger and even fiercer than Dana (he once knocked out the Giants' Y.A. Tittle in a New York saloon brawl).

"I put in the 'traditional' because I was thinking about traditional quality , not necessarily boats built of solid teak. But traditionally, people built boats to go to sea and come back , and I want to see some more of those."

"The way this whole thing started was that I couldn't find any good workers for my boatyard," Riordan said. "I started checking around, and everybody else said the same thing. There's not a good young boatbuilder in Norfolk, on the Northern Neck, Chesapeake Bay, the East Coast, anywhere.

"I bought a mailing list and wrote every yard in the country and they all said the same thing: there are no young craftsmen around. The average age of the master boatbuilders in this country is 55 . Until we started there wasn't a single shipwright's trade school in America, and the only way for a young person to learn the business was to apprentice himself to a master builder, if he could find one who would take him on.

"Hell, it takes 10 years to learn boatbuilding that way; your apprentice, he's fetching tools, he's going out for coffee, he's sweeping up, he's hauling boats, he's patching fiberglass, he's showing customers around, he's doing everything except building boats."

Riordan pounded a mighty fist against the doorjamb, rattling everything in the room.

"Well, the kids who come to us, if they sick for a couple of years, they're going to know how to lbuild boats . They'll be able to go to any boatyard in the country and make a decent living."

"No they won't," Dana growled. "You don't make a master builder in two years, and what we teach isn't going to do a kid any good when somebody comes in with a ding on his fiberglass cabin cruiser or a steel hull stove in. In a boatyard these days you might spend one hour in eight working with wood."

"They're both blowing smoke," said David L. Perry, 32, whose title is academy administrator but whose real job appears to be keeping Dana and Riordan from throwing each other through the window over matters of doctrine.

"After two years here a young man - or an old one or a woman, we have no entrance qualification but desire - is not going to be a master builder, but he's going to be a better worker than anyone else in the job market." Perry said. "He's going to have a solid foundation in a craft that will be around as long as there are boats on the water."

For all their wont to shout at one another and pound on tables, the three men are old friends in deep and abiding agreement on the underlying premise of the school: building honest boats that will go sweetly and safely upon the water is a fine and satisfying way to spend one's days.

Putting that premise into action has been tough. Dana joined the academy in January when the original director, Frank deAlteriis, left because of a continuing disagreement with Riordan that remains obscure after several explanations. With him went six students, half the first class.

Dana was ready when Riordan called. "I had been up in Martha's Vineyard building a boat, and I was leaving anyway," he said. "My wife Jean and I had already decided the weather up there wasn't fit for human beings, but we didn't want to go back to the (Caribbean) Islands, because 25 years down there is more than long enough. This place seems ideal."

For a sailing man, which Dana has been since he was a boy in Michigan, it would be hard to improve on Mathews County, a many-fingered peninsula between Chesapeake and Mobjack bays. A short drive or easy sail to the south is the Port of Norfolk, where Dana inspects for seaworthiness ships insured through Lloyd's of London.

The amenities of Mathews Courthouse include a tree-shaded house with high ceilings and beautiful proportions in a community of proud and friendly people who respect the boatbuilder's art.

"I had almost forgotten there were places like this to live," said Jean Dana, a very nice and very tough lady who is at home anyplace in the world because she has made homes in dozens of ports, in good times and hard.

It is a house in which a stranger feels instantly at ease and enfolded, a special atmosphere that pervades the homes of the water rats of this world.

Dana got into boatbuilding on the eve of World Warr II, when the Navy held a torpedo boat design contest.

"I was studying naval architecture at the University of Michigan. What I came up with a 58-foot Boston Whalter," he said. "My entry was too late, but it would have been a hell of a PT boat, as fast and stable as anything ever built.

"I fooled around a lot and flunked out of school. Then the war came and the Navy sent me to the shipyard in L.A. I've been designing and building boats ever since. It's the last unregulated trade there is, which is the only reason I don't try to discourage these kids. The way you become a master builder is you build boats, and when you get to building them good enough you are recognized as a master."

Before him on the drafting table were the final sketches of the school's next major project, a workboat of modest size and relatively enormous capacity to be built of three opposing layers of quarterinch cedar veneer. Dana said the construction technique, called cold-molding, would result in a boat at once lighter, stronger and cheaper thanfiberglass.

"If they can build this one right, the next big number will be a boat I've been designing for the singlehanded transatlantic race in 1980," he said. "She's a 50-footer after the fashion of the Presto Ketch, which is a lineal descendant of the old New England sharpie, what they call a 'deadrise' boat in Chesapeake parlance. She'll be shoal draft with a wetted surface 20 per cent less and stability 20 per cent greater than the traditional wineglass hull crosssection. She'll sail herself."

Dana stuck another cigarette through his beard.

"All of this of course assuming that we make a go of this school. This is a pretty long shot, and as you can see this is really roughandready setup."

Indeed it is. The hotel, built in the '30s for a tourist boom that never came, was and largely is an unfinished shell through which the wind whistles almost unimpeded. It stands in the center of town, as far from the water (two miles) as you can get in Mathews County.

Riordan had planned to build a school on some land he owns along the York River near Williamsburg, but "it was $80,000 for openers, and this was almost free" - the rent is low and the town fathers threw in free water and sewer service. Riodan said he has put $50,000 into organizing and promoting the academy and doesn't expect it ever to be much more than a breakeven operation. "If I wanted to get rich, I know ways to get rich. What I want is to see these people build boats."

Perry spends much of his time - and more money than Riordan likes to think about - combing the Carolina coast and small lumberyards all over the East for fine wood.

"It has gotten to the point where they sell it almost by the pound, and then we have to take the timber green and season it ourselves, because if it stayed around the lumberyard for any length of time somebody would buy it out from under us or even steal it."

Perry ran his fingers over a piece of yellow pine a student had been shaping into the stem of a skiff. The fact is you never find enough of the right kind of wood and you have to cheat.

"Everybody who builds boats cheats, and they always have; it's a fine old tradition among craftsmen. What I'm really talking about is compromise; if you really understand what you're doing, you can compromise where it doesn't show and where it doesn't compromise the integrity of yourself or the boat.

"When you're designing a boat you do the same thing. A boat is an endless series of contradictions. To get more speed you yield a little weatherliness; to get strength you make it a little too heavy to respond to the sea the way it might. There's a lot of science in boatbuilding, but there's also a lot of philosophy and intuition. The idea that we will someday be sending people out of here who will understand boats makes any amount of trouble worthwhile."

Tuition at Chesapeake Academy is $250 a month, and the people of the community take the students as boarders. "The tuition doesn't even cover salaries." Perry said. "I forget when I got my last paycheck. "But the sale of the boat should bridge the gap one of these days."

In the center of the workshop was a comely Seal Cove skiff, one of several variations on the themes of noted designer Howard L. Chapelle the academy has been producing. On the ground floor his 24foot Sharpie was taking shape in a sea of fragrant wood shavings, and a Pamlico Sound-style workboat built for a local person of substance awaited its final coats of paint.

Most of the work is done with hand toos, which Dana said is valuable "up to a point, because some of these kids came here not knowing what a tool is . But if they're going to make a go in this business we'll need to get some very expensive equipment in here, because labor is not only inefficient but in many cases inferior. They don't shape timbers with broadaxes any more for the very good reason that it's silly."

After an extended session of trying to explain to two respectful apprentices just why the frames on the Sharpie had to be done exactly this damn way , Dana returned to the office shaking his head.

"These kids are mostly from middleclass families who have seen fit to reject some of the values they grew up around and are seeking satisfaction in traditional labor. They aren't particularly dollar-oriented, they're more interested in being individuals, which is something that's getting pretty hard to learn to do these days.

"The problem is to show them how to translate the dream into reality, to help a kid understand how much of his dream is practical and how much of it is BS - without wrecking him."