CAP'N DICK Hartge never wastes time at the drafting table when he sets out to build a boat. "I get the shape in my mind and then I work it out in the wood, don't you know," he said, looking out over the boats moored in Schoolhouse Creek at Galesville on Maryland's Western Shore.

"All my life I have been interested in the shapes of hulls. I would go along the docks in Baltimore with my father and slight along the hulls of the steamboats to see which was prettiest. And you can watch a boat go on the water and see where she needs a little more here or a little taken off there."

Cap'n Dick, as Ernest Emory Hartge is universally and almost reventially known among Chesapeake Bay sailors, retired 16 years ago and now builds only a boats or two a year. Those who get them count themselves lucky indeed, because Cap'n Dick turned 83 Tuesday, and says he may not be building many more.

Such freestyle design and construction is known as rack o'eye and is the core of the tradition of Bay-built boats. The Chesapeake is unlike any other body of water and the boats that go best upon it are those conceived and built by men who grew up in intimate association with the Bay's breezes and tides and shoals and sudden squalls.

Cap'n Dick knows the Bays as well as any man. "I liked this place better when I was a boy," he said as he showed a visitor around Whitestake Point, where a couple of yard workers were lunching in the shade of massive maple he remembers as a twig. "My people were Germans," he said. "Always been on the Eastern or Western Shores since this country was settled. My wife's (Jane Robinson Hartge of the Rosecroft Robinsons) people too. This was a fair-sized port in the old days, and oysters, oysters right under the point here so big I sold 'em for 50 cents a bushel when the going price was 40."

From frost to frost through the long fair-weather season the Bay swarms with thousands of small centerboard sailboats, mainly daysailers out "gunkholing" in the labyrinthine creeks and rivers. Of all these small craft under sail none is more beautiful or more handy than the Chesapeake 20 class designed 40 years ago by Cap'n Dick.

"They dominated Bay sailing for years," said Ralph Renno of the Chesapeake 20 Association. "Cap'n Dick himself won five regattas in a row in one of his 20s, something unheard of before or since in a class where you'll see skippers fighting each other tooth and nail foe seventh place. There are faster boats now, but none sweeter to sail."

"They are boats built for the Bay," a sailing columnist wrote. "Boats built on classic lines to look like sailboats should like. They each have a soul and they are 'forgiving.' They were great boats when they were built and they are grand boats now. They are holding their own in West River. On the Bay they remain in treasure never to be forgotten - a sailor won't quickly forget sailing one."

A forgiving boat for unforgiving waters, yes, Cap'n Dick said. "They're a good family boat; you can take five or six people out and not worry. But I built the thing for speed, too. I had built some double-ended 20-footers I called the Albatross, with a V or chine bottom, then I built a transom-stern 20 and it was little faster."

More than a little faster, according to other oldtimers around Galesville, and it was no small matter because Hartge, like his father before him, made his living building boats. The man that built the faster boat drew the business, so, as Hartge recalled, "some of the boys sent away for some plans to make a boat that would lick mine.

"They called her the Vanity , and sure enough, under most conditions she could leave me. So I built a round-bottom to get back on top, and that was the start of the Chesapeake 20. It had an inboard rudder and a skeg. It wouldn't lick 'em every time, but it was competitive. It (he) won the first summer series (of the West River Sailing Club, of which he was a founder and second commodore).

"I built another, and sold it right off, and then I built the Ranger , and by that time I was pretty well satisfied with the design."

So were a lot of people. Hartge built four dozen Chesapeake 20s from 1936 to 1941, one at a time at first and then four at a time once the patterns were sufficiently perfected so the men in the yard could work on the boats without fulltime supervision.

"They sold (for $650 each, at a time when the best man in the boatyard was paid 75 cents an hour) as fast as I could turn 'em out, and it even got to the point where I could make a little money. Then the war came along and I went over to Annapolis to build PT boats. After the war I built four or five of them at double the price and lost money. I would go all the way down to Elizabeth City (N.C.) to get some of that good Dismal Swamp juniper and it just wasn't to be had at any price. So that was the end of the class."

Not by a long shot. Of the 55 Chesapeake 20s Cap'n Dick built, at least 25 are sailing condition, including the one preserved at the maritime museum at St. Michaels, Md. "I'm kinda sorry about the one," he said. "Somebody had her up on trestles for a long time and sagged all the sheer out of her."

Another is under overhaul at the Hartge Yacht yard in Galesville (which was the Hartge Boat Yard when Cap'n Dick ran it), though Cap'n Dick is of the opinion that if nephew Buddy Hartge leaves her in the sun much longer she won't be worth fooling with.

He now winters in Florida in search of peace and quiet to moderate his chronic high blood pressure. "I never drank or smoke or ate much, so of course I got the high-livers' disease," he said. Each year he returns for the Labor Day weekend regatta at West River, of which the high point is the Golden Regatta, Chesapeake 20s sailed by skippers over 50.

Cap'n Dick wasn't there to see Buddy Hartge, sailing the Endeavor , come second to Joe Atwell of Annapolis in the Gale. Cap'n Dick was in Anne Arundel General Hospital, celebrating his birthday and telling his friends not to worry.

Actually, what everybody had been worrying about was that Cap'n Dick might take the helm of a 20 and race. "He's the truest gentleman I've ever known," Renno said, "but I don't want to race with him. Cap'n Dick never goes for second place, and if you get in his way he'll run you down."