The coxswain was a finalist for homecoming queen and she goes steady with the man who handles the No. 3 oar. The coach isn't crazy about the arrangement "but how can I argue?" he asks "I'm married to a coxswain myself."

The bow man was recruited straight off the registration line for spring classes last January, and the first time George Washington University's varsity eight crew hit the water two weeks ago was also the first time he had ever set foot, or fanny in an eight-ored shell.

The little guy with the big arms on second oar was a coxswain 20 pounds ago; the No. 7 man took up the sport "because GW didn't have a bike-racing team," and the rpwer at No. 5 will have no trouble swimming shore if ever someone yells "abandon ship." He's a former high-school swimmer.

And yesterday at 5:45 a.m. - as in morning - the coach, Tim Cullen, and his 38-person crew arrived at Thompson's Boat House for the usual 90-minute torture session know as practice.

Their polluted Potomac River playground churned chilly and 20-mile-per-hour gusts left a visitor's jaw numb and his writing hand inoperative after 20 minutes in Cullen's motorized launch, borrowed from the biology department.

But the cold and the cruel hours seem to make little difference to this Colonial crew, particularly after the nightmare season of a year ago when the sport very nearly was scratched from the athletic department budget.

GW lost the four races it entered last spring and the former coach, Bill Young, resigned before the end of the season, forching the Colonials to drop out of two important regattas.

"It was a very bad situation," said Terry Ryan, junior cocaptain and the former bicycle racer. "We just had a lot of people who didn't get along, personal conflicts and that kind of thing.

"We had some new guys in the boats and the older guys wouldn't even try to help. I rowed on the jayvee boat last year, and we had four or five guys who were just along for the ride. This is one sport where everybody better pull together, or else."

Cullen, the new coach and a former GW oarsman (class of '71), convinced Athletic Director Bob Fairs the sport was worth saving, and took over the team last fall.

There have been plenty of hard times for Culten, assistant coach Joe Creed and their crew ever since.

There are no scholarships for crew at GW and the budget, about $4,5000 a year, is final furious March fling kept GW off the water until 14 days ago, although Georgetown had been rowing for a week in sunny Florida.

But there have been good times, too Last fall, in the annual Frostbite Regatta, GW entered a mostly inexperienced crew and took first place in a lightweight eight division. Those hated Hoyas, among others, were left in the Colonials' wake.

Cullen and his crew open their season Saturday morning on the Potomac against Stockton State of New Jersey, and hope to peak for the major event of the small-college rowing season, the Ded Vail Regatta in Philadelphia in midMay.

They are struggling now. "We were kind of flailing away out there today," Cullen said after a workout that ended with one badly bleeding thumb in the jayvee eight and a busted rudder on the varsity boat.

"But we'll better. You need a lot of water time to develop technique." Cullen said. "We've got so many new people, and that's been our biggest problem We're at least two weeks behind. And I also want to give everybody a fair shot at the first boat."

Cullen based his curren boating on results of a series of strength and conditioning tests after a rigourous indoor off-the-water winter training program.

His team reported six days a week, also at 5:45 a.m., at the Smith Center for two hours of running and lifting. Why such an early start? "I have to be at my real job (as a geologist for the Bechtel Co.) by 8 o'clock," said Cullen. "And I'm never late."

His crew is usually just as punctual.

But shortly before GW was scheduled to start its morning workout, the coxswain for the jayves boat informed Cullen that one of his oarsmen had called in sick.

"Two days before the first race of the year and he can't get out bed," the coach muttered. "I told the coxswain to call him back to get his butt out here. The only excuse he'll have to stay out of the water today is cardiac arrest."