With the first rites of spring-specifically, a touch of warmth and the last sight of ice on the Potomac-the area's rowers emerge from hibernation and prepare to provide a daily celebration of the river.

Not only do hundreds of local oarsmen take their shells onto the water each day but spectators also line both shores to watch.

The celebration begins today with two local high schools-Washington-Lee and T.C. and W-L row against Northeast Catholic of Philadelphia and Georgetown races St Joseph's.

During the week, Northern Virginia's five scholastic crews-Williams, Fort Hunt, Washington-Lee, Stuart and Yorktown-join college and private clubs on the water to hone their skills for their weekend competitions.

When the local teams assemble for one of the several high school regatas, 500 or more youngsters (out-of-town crews often visit) gather, awaiting their moments on the water.

"Everybody races. Nobody cuts. That's the way all of us (coaches) are," said veteran Washington-Lee Coach Charlie Butt.

"Basically we take anybody-guys and girls-who wants to row. And we have lightweight crews as well as a heavyweight so we take kids of all sizes. This hasn't hurt us in terms of popularity."

"It provides an opportunity for people to learn a new skill," said Williams' Ccoach Jon Butler. "It's inconceivable to me to have a kid walk up to the basketball coach and say, 'I've never touched a basketball, I'd like to make your team.' In rowing, the kids have that opportunity. Secondly, the opportunity is there to race every weekend. You don't have kids sitting on the bench."

Three other factors weigh heavily in the continued success of the scholastic programs: the involvement of parents, intense local rivalries and competitive successes.

Parents raise large sums of money to meet the high cost of equipment and travel, T.C. Williams' boosters have provided the school with a new shell for each of the last three seasons and another is ordered for 1980. Washington-Lee purchased two new shells last season and Fort Hunt bought a new one last year. An eight-oared shell costs about $6,000. High school rivalries date from 1949, when George Washington (now part of T.C. Williams) and Washington-Lee waged war on the Potomac. Though some high schools rowed in the 1920s, there had been no racing for 20 years before GW took up the sport in 1947 and Butt started the W-L crew two years later.

"There's been a hell of a tradition of good crews ever since," Butt said. "Back in the '50's and '60's there was the rivalry between George Washington and Washington-Lee; and then Stuart had an undefeated season in 1968."

Butt has been most responsible for the national and international image the local crews have obtained. W-L owns a dozen Scholastic Rowing Association of America championship-eight titles, including one stretch from 1957 to 1964 when the Generals took eight consecutive SRAA championships and second-eight crowns. Twice W-L has come home from the prestigious Henley Regatta in England with titles and Stuart also won there once.

Three former T.C. Williams Students-Mark and Fred Borchelt and Chip Lubsen - rowed in the 1976 Olympics and others have participated in the World Yyouth Games.

Three local crews-T.C. Williams, Fort Hunt and Washington-Lee-comprised half the final championship-eight field in last sear's SRAA and Stuart barely missed.

While only five high schools have rowing now, it is not for lack of interest. At least six schools in Northern Virginia have indicated interest in starting crew, but they must wait until sufficient boathouse space becomes available to store their equipment.

Part of the problem will be alleviated with the completion of the Occoquan Boathouse, which will be the site of the Northern Virginia championships for the first time May 12. When Occoquan is totally ready Stuart will flee the overcrowded Potomac Boathouse and George Mason University and another one or two scholastic crews will be able to start programs.

T.C. Williams, with 105 boys out, looks to regain the area varsity-eight championship it relinquished to Fort Hunt the last two years. The Titans return five members of last year's varsity eight and average a hefty 180 pounds per man. W-L returns a veteran, but light, crew among 50 boys. The crew averages about 160 pounds.

Fort Hunt graduated its varsity eight, but returns with its area champion second eight among 40 boys. The Federals have had early organizational problems with scehduling practive time because of the school's fire, which has forced the students to take late afternoon classes.Yorktown has 32 boys out and hopes for improved fortunes. William Reid takes over the reigns at Stuart from veteran Coach Erv Dodd.

Williams has 90 girls out and is expected to again dominate that division.