It seemed like a good idea, given the fact the 40-foot wooden sloop was sinking that cold November morning, to signal for help by lighting a flare. Only the skipper, in doing that, managed to set his hair on fire.

Undaunted, the skipper put out the fire on his head with the sleeve of his jacket - only to set that on fire, too. No matter. Since the cabin was almost full of water, he dove toward his now-submerged bunk, extinguishing all fire.

That was just one of the sea stories that a group of Chesapeake sailors, with no pretensions about winning the America's cup, told on each other at recent lunch called for no other reason than to laugh a little.

John Sherwood, a feature writer at The Washington Star whose sailing misadventures have inspired the nickname "Shipwreck," not only told that story about the flaming skipper but also the one about the kind of sailing friend everyone needs.

Said friend is Burt Hoffman, a Washington sailor who used to draw crowds until, to the distress of his friends, he got good at it. But before this distressing change in course, Sherwood said, Hoffman would make every other sailor feel better by fouling up the most carefully prepared detail.

Like the time at the St. Michael's pier when, before the expectant crowd, he gallantly stood up to help his lady friend out of the dinghy and onto the dock, only to feel the dinghy he was standing in slipping out from under him.

"First we saw half his head and two hands," Sherwood related. "Then only his hands: Then only one hand. Of course nobody moved to help the poor guy" until after the splash.

Duncan Spencer, the only true blue-water sailor around the table of 10, with several Atlantic crossings by sailboat to his credit, told how he took a cat along on one transatlantic voyage. A cat, it turns out - at least that cat - can be more troublesome than a leak in the bottom but somehow never falls overboard at sea. The cat did leap from the dinghy once, though, onto a larger, more comfortable boat near-by in the safety of the harbor, only to slip off. Spencer, after some contemplation, said he rescued the cat.

Then there was the afternoon when Ken Simendinger, a Washington public relations man with a one-third interest in a 27-foot sloop, did something so outrageous to his boat that it became a tourist attraction for Galesville, a harbor town on Maryland's Western Shore, south of Annapolis.

"I was down below when I heard that familiar thud," said Dinger" in relating how the sloop went aground only a few minutes out of its slip. He decided to call it a day after working 90 minutes to winch the sloop free by working against the anchor he had waded out to plant in the river bottom. But his passengers, not knowing any better, said the worst was over. Let's go on with the sail.

On they went, only to graze another boat before suffering the final humiliation of the day.

"There we were," he recalled, "circling each other and shouting numbers and insurance companies across the water between us." The guy had just bought the boat."

That was enough. Simendinger ordered a retreat. He directed the lady at the tiller to steer for the red buoy marking the entrance to the South River flowing out of Galesville. Only the helmsperson did such a good job of heading toward the buoy that she somehow managed to spear it with the mast and its wire stays.

The mast was bent downward by the tremendous pressure exerted by the boat under full sail working against the anchored buoy. Simendinger and his crew, feeling even more humiliated, extricated the mast and its stays from the buoy and limped home to Galesville on the outboard. The bent mast stood out against the sky, drawing sailors and guffaws from miles around.

Finally, there was the high-powered, can-do executive whose power boat ran into a violent storm out in the Atlantic between Miami Beach and Bimini. His frantically worried passengers finally prevailed upon the skipper to call the Coast Guard for help.

With great reluctance, the executive got on his ship-to-shore radio and asked the Coast Guard for help.

"What's your position?" was the question which came cracking through the storm from the Coast Guard station.

"Chairman of the board and chief executive officer," was the reply.