Washington area sailors have taken to the trapese. They want to go faster, have more fun and maintain a closer understanding of their boats and they do it with trapeze sailing.

The trapeze is not the circus variety. Picture an average one-person crew outfitted with a harness that he steps into and buckles over his shoulders. There is a menacing-looking hook at his belly button for the loop that attaches to a wire hanging from high on the mast.

The trapeze was introduced in the mid 1950s with the advent of smaller boats with bigger sail areas. The increased capacity for catching wind gave light boats greater power and speed. It also required more crew weight outside to prevent capsizing.

The trapeze allows the crew not just to hang out to windward, but to stand out. The only parts of him still on the boat are his shoe soles as he stretches himself above the rushing water. The idea angle is 90 degrees to the mast.

The ideal trapeze crew is nimble and quick, the acrobat of the crewing universe. When out on the wire, he may often be holding onto the jib sheet alone. He can bend one knee and lean toward the stern to raise the how up and promotes planning or he can just try to hold his footing when waves come crashing over him and the boat dives.

During a tack, the crew must swing in, unhook and scramble out on the other side, rehooking on the opposite wire. He's minding the job sail the whole time.

When a boat has a leeward capsise, the trapeze crew can dive toward the sails or try to quickly slip down onto the centerboard to prevent the boat from "turtling," or turning completely over. It is a strange sensation to be literally pulled into the sails by a lurching mast.

Capsizing on the windward side is more of a danger. It means the boat is literally turning over on top of the crew and skipper. The crew may still be hooked on the trapeze wire, the mainsail may have fallen over him. Whatever the predicament, both sailors must quickly sort out whatever tangle of wires, ropes and sails they are into and try to right the boat.

On the Chesapeake it can be difficult and tiring. If it is windy, the boat stands a chance of being blown quite a distance, particularly if there are ocean-style rollers.

If the boat turtles, the mast can drag on the bottom or get just plain stuck in the mud. It can also break, leaving the boat to limp home on jury-rigged jib alone.

Smaller sailboats can be tuned to a super bu delicate balance with such things as innovative sheeting systems, hull stiffness and stay adjustment. Go visit a trapeze sailing group sometime when they're done for the day and you will see them tinkering with their boats the way people play with a hot rod. Speed and efficiency are the primary objectives, and there are constant variations to keep up on. Trapeze sailors believe that everything counts, down to the smallest pin, and they lavish their craft with consistent interest.

Many of them are race-oriented. They think nothing of participating in three races in a row, perhaps putting in 12 or 15 miles. Because of the lighter weights of many trapeze boats, this Washington area sailing society is a mobile one, trailering boats from the Florida Keys up to New England.

The 470, 505 and International 14 classes are the most popular in this area for trapezing, although the Flying Dutchman, Tempest, Fireball and other classes are sailed with the trapeze as well. The singlehanded Contender is also gaining popularity.

The Severn Sailing Association in Annapolis, and the West River Sailing Club in Galesville, Md., maintain large fleets of trapeze classes. Both sponsor regattas, club races and seminars that include trapeze techniques.

Along the Potomac there are only a few trapeze boats, mostly out of Belle Haven and the Washington Sailing Marina. The sport on the river is still not organized, perhaps because few care to risk a ducking in the Potomac's murky water.

All trapezers share one common motivation: action. It is the type of sport that has a hairline border with danger, like whitewater canoeing or hang gliding. The thrill is there, along with the probability of emergencies.

Trapeze sailing is not an easy sport - it's far from cruising. It requires work, but has its rewards in speed without fuel and astonished looks from fishermen and pleasure boaters. Even sea gulls.