It was opening of the Pirates Cove Wednesday night yacht racing series and things were jumping. Sailboats flitted around the bowl-shaped cove in the West River like hopped-up teenagers at a barn dance.

"Ready about" . . ."helm's a lee" . . . The orders rang out from 20 skippers piloting fast, shiny boats close enough to each other to touch. Their aim: To be first and farthest upwind at the starting line when the gun went off at 6:10.

Don Wagner was ordering his mop-topped troupe with increasing fervor. The clock wound down.

It looked like a perfect start. The wind pounded in at 15 to 20 knots from the southwest, the fleet would pop bright spinnakers as it hit the line and boats would lurch downriver with a fair and following breeze.

"It's gonna be a parade," Wagner's tiny wife Jean shouted from the forepeak, as she was making ready to pop the big downwind sail.

The stopwatch said 20 seconds to start. Wagner brought his 30-foot C&C around for the final approach. "Let's get some boat sped. Get her flying," he shouted to his son Bruce, manning the mainsail.

Pow, the gun sounded and we were off. The crew of four raced to the halyards and hoisted the big chute. In a flash it was up, and in another flash everything was in chaos. The wind, which had hung strong and true as we maneuvered in the little cove, played pixie with an instant about-face.

Instead of fair and following, it swung foul and in our faces. The spinnaker balled up like a dirty hanky, wrapped around itself and flapped uselessly in the fluky breeze.

"Gybe the chute," Wagner shouted, son Bruce grabbed the trip line to bring the sail around to the other side. He yanked hard and the whole mess came apart in his hands.

At this point the visiting newsman made for the cabin and pretended not to be in the way. Bodies flew, sails flapped, lines flailed, everybody shouted at everybody else and the boat stopped dead in the water.

Five minutes and a hundred harried epithets later the guest came back up to find the spinnaker down, the genoa jib flying and the boat plowing down the river with 10-knot breezes off her port bow.

"Where, are we?"

Third," said Wagner, and pointed to the two boats ahead - Dick Luken's 33-foot C&C "Brown Sugar" and Mills Salversen's Peterson 34, "Streaker."

The rest of the flet languished behind. Not bad for a memorable foulup.

I've sailed the West for years and one of my favorite escapes has been to sneak off early on a weekday and jump down to the Bay. This is midweek cruising can be solitary. One or two boats may pass or be passed.

But every so often that weekday is a Wednesday, and as the wind eases and the sun sinks I heard for home.

Nothing is quite so startling as to end such a solo day cruise by finding yourself facing a wall of feverish racers commandeering the channel on their way out for the weekly bash.

The Pirates Cove series is popular and well it might be. The fee for this competitive exercise is $5. That covers a series of eight races. Wagner said the way you join up is "stop by the (Pirates Cove) bar. The bartender will give you everything you need. Just send in your five bucks and show up at 6"

Not a bad route in the sport of emperors.

They gather all summer, working men playing a rich man's game. At 5:30 the cove is deserted, the wind playing on the water.

Then they arrive, sweaty and tired from the long drive. They tear off ties and jackets, don souwesters, try to round up a crew, rig boats in half the time they need, make for the line.

"We have all kinds," said Wagner, "from novices up to darn good racers. We're not as formal as Annapolis, but we've got some who take it seriously."

Like Wagner. Two miles out the west and nearing the rounding marker we had Allen Drew's 38-foot "Wizzard" off our stern and gaining. "She's faster than us," said Wagner. "We might have to cut her off."

Drew pushed Wizzard slightly upwind and made his move. He'd sail our starboard side, pull even, steal our wind and zip past. Or so he thought.

"Let's squeeze him," Wagner said. "Harden up," he instructed the crew.

Just as Wizzard's bow crossed our stern Wagner pulled gently on the tiller, brought his bow around and started pushing Wizzard further and further upwind. It reminded me of nudging in my big brother off the sidewalk on our way to school.

Wizzard was nudged further and further until she was so far of course, she was sailing out into the middle of the Bay. We could see and hear Drew fuming, ordering his crew around.

"Hey Allen, you're not going to make it," Wagner's son shouted cheerfully.

Drew backed off, fell downwind and rounded back up where he'd begun - off our stern. And he stayed there the rest of the race.

Isn't that guy going to punch you in the nose when you get back to the dock?" I asked.

"He'd probably like to, but he won't," said Wagner.

He didn't.