Maybe I should blame it all on that rich kid who tacked his gleaming white Penguins sailboat so smartly across the Metedeconk River when I was a 12-year-old bored with doing everything than can be done with a rowboat.

He certainly was part of the reason that I put together $150, mostly incaddying money, that fall to buy the Sieve, a 21-foot, gaff-rigged Maine sailing dory that I figured - leaky or not - was big enough to beat 12-foot Penguin. I even took out the rusty iron ballast in the Sieve's bilges to make her faster - and less stable.

What happened next, in my 13th summer, is the start of one man's story about addiction. An addiction to boats. Perhaps it will help explain why today there are 13.6 million of us out there on the nation's waters in all kinds of recreational boats, twice the number of 10 years ago, according to the Coast Guard.

Within that 13.6 million recreational boating addicts, there ar dangerous ones, obnoxious ones, responsible ones, and likeable ones - just as in any group that large. For varying reasons, each boater gets something out of being on the water no matter if it's in a canoe, sloop or Bertram luxury power boat.

But, under the heading of one boat addict's back to that 13th summer in the Sieve - which I never did manage to keep from leaking. Although, the husky Sieve did not beat that little Penguin in light air, she left that little sailing dinghy bucking and forlorn astern in heavy wind and waves. Better yet, Sieve demonstrated to my buddies and me in those Metedecant trials that she could safely be sailed all over New Jersey's more formidable Barnegat Bay.

Uninhabited islands rich in birds we had never seen before: spits of land where teen-agers could camp and listen to bait fish slapping across the surface at night as the big fish chased them; soft dawns an brilliant orange sunsets - all this was put in our reach as we gunkholed around Barnegat Bay in that tired old centerboard sloop.

There were so many days of freefalling joy. Like the time Sieve went boiling along under the upraised Toms River bridge drawing the stares of motorists who had left their hot cars to see who was under that thick spruce mast gliding through the bridge opening. Sieve was sailing wing, on wing, the mainsail out one side and the jib out the other, and we laughed back up at the adults, figuring we looked pretty good and had no end of golden days like this one ahead of us.

When hot, we would just jump overboard and then swim hard to catch the rope dragging behind the Sieve. We learned to porpoise, plano and dive by twisting our bodies in various ways underwater as the Sieve dragged us along at what felt like high speed. There was no pressure with sailing Sieve. Just joy, joy, joy.

But then came racing Comet sailboats and the kind of serious pressure that can ruin sailing for youngsters the way Little League can ruin baseball for them. Waxing the bottom of the Comet before the race: yelling "right of way" at competing sailboats during the race while jocking for position; getting the first taste of bureaucracy as adults held seemingly endless meeting after the races. Winning in sailing, like most other sports, requires concentration that cuts into the joy.

I didn't kick the boating addiction in leaving the adventursome exploring with Sieve for one serious racing with Comet. Nor did going from sail to power boats cure me of the boating addiction.

For those who cannot understand why anyone would spend so much money and waste so much time alternately freezing and roasting in a boat, especially a grown man or woman. I will risk sounding far-out by stating that being on the water can build deep pools of tranquility inside a person. He can recall scenes he has lived on the water so that the posturings in the work-a-day world look like meaningless thrashings on the surface. He is like a trout in a deep pool calmly regarding those frantic waterbugs on the surface. Boating can provide a sense of proportion and perspective and release.

Take how dawn broke over the Rhode River near Galesville. Md., last Sunday for those boaters who had shared a cove there for the night. I looked over the gunwhale at the shore coming to light and spotted the graceful silhouette of a heron fishing for its breakfast at water's edge.

The heron, obviously figuring this was his time, not man's, walked regally, step after step in the shallow water. It's head was cocked so its eye could see any bait fish in range. A quick dip of the neck was all I saw as the heron's bill noiselessly knifed into the water and drew out a fish. It was a pageant of beauty and grace. The boat gave me a front seat. It was a great way to start the day.