How big is a big boat? How big is a big race? To a Snipe sailor, the Flying Dutchman may look like a dinghy as big as the Rita. And the J-24 sailor, drained by the logistical challenges of an ambitious campaign is likely to marvel at the S.O.R.C crowd, who ship their much larger boats and crews hither and yon like postcards.

But there is an absolute scale in boat racing, and its mind-bogging facts of life suggest that the rest of us have relatively few problems. At the top of that scale is Al Van Metre of Alexandria.

Van Metre's boat is the 61-foot long Running Tide, the black-hulled Olin Stevens sloop that won the Bermuda Race in 1976. Van Metre's bigh race this year is the Annapolis-to-Newport, which departs the R2 buoy at Tolly Point on Saturday, June 16.

The owner of Running Tide has pretty much the same concerns as any skipper who wants to win - the boat in shape put together a good numbers, however are different.

"Oh, I guess we'll spend maybe five or six thousand dollars preparing for the Annapolis-Newport." Van Metre said while relaxing in Tide's [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] cockpit the other day above him [LINE ILLEGIBLE] and wood, and the uncluttered decks swept forward. It seemed, almost to horizon.

"But maybe you mean the whole season cost," he continued, almost hemused Conguess that would include the $105,000 at Minneford's yard, and I guess the other $25,000 or so I spent down South. This is kind of a hard year, because we had the must height changed, and that meant all new sails again for another $35,000. When you figure what I owe Arnie Gay this Annapolis said, I guess its about $200,000 for the year."

"It does get pretty ridiculous," added Joan Van Metre with a grin.

"But the other guys are just as serious," Van Metre said gesturing to an equally sleek and famous yacht a few slips over. "That's Tenacious Ted Turner's boat. He's our arch rival, and I'll bet he spends even more."

Once the boat is in shape, there's the matter of a crew. Van Metre had 17 people aboard when he won the Bermuda Race.

"That was a few too many, I think he said. "We'll probably only take 14 in the Newport race." And they have to be fed.

"It it's rough we go back to peanut butter sandwiches like anybody else." Van Metre said. "But I don't mean we don't eat well. In '76 I had a marvoious navigator - Dr Ray Brown the Annapolis heart surgeon - but he can't cook. So we had the race catered by Avignone Freres."

It will not be exotic sauces that win the Newport race, however, when between 15 and 20 Class A yachts line up at the starting line in the state of high psych that precedes uninterrupted boat-to-boat combat for perhaps 100 hours.

"Yeah, it's pretty competitive," Van Metre said. "The starting line is the worst because everyone is pretty excited."

Son Beau Van Metre, 31, usually starts Running Tide, with Van Metre watching from his customary place at the backstay. The owner calls the "turn" the critical moment when the yacht commences its final sprint for the starting line, joined by all the others in a melee of aggressive lockeying punctuated by the chants of the timekeepers 15 seconds 10 seconds . . . 9, 8, 7, 6 . . .") and scaled by the boom of the starting cannon.

Tide has 56,000 pounds of momentum, so the timing better be right. The Newport race itself is often thought of as three separate races - a beat down the bay against southerly breezes, the ocean run up the coast and the final stage from Block Island to Castle Light.

The watches are usually three hours on and three off on Tide and she rhythm can be hard for the crew to park up at first.

"For the first 12 hours every body wants to stay up," Van Metre said. "And after that everybody wants to go to bed. You can tell the experienced men right away, though - they hit the bunks when they want. They know what's coming later.

What may be coming is Turne, and the tacking duels for which he is well known The big boats make constant sail adjustments just as dinghies do, but what really keep the crew hopping is tactical boarder boat maneuverin.

"I don't think anyone can beat Running Tide upwind." Van Metre said, "but I'm not sure we can tack as fast as Tenacious. You know, Turner's a genius at getting you to put in one more tack than he does - he plans if so it comes out that way. That's about in one-minutes gain for him every time if he gets away with it."

Below decks Tide is very sample a rough and ready arrangement of bunks around a large central eating table. The forward third of the boat is given over entirely to the storage of sailbags.

The Spartan atmosphere is no problem for someone like Len Price, Van Metre's captain, the fellow who looks after Tide and keeps her ready to go. After all, he was on Great Britain D in the Round-the-World race, seven months long, 144 days at sea.

On the other hand, Running Tide is not exactly what Joan Van Metre had in mind for those occasions when she ran get her husband away from his development office, or off the tennis court or back from the ocean racing wars.

For that you need another boat. So the Van Metres also own Silver Seas, a 71-foot Burger cruiser with two GM 450-horsepower engines and fully air conditioned. The two of them brought her back from Fort Lauder dale last month.

"Which boat do I prefect?" asked Mrs. Van Metre, a twinkle showing through her sunglasses. "Well, can you guess when is more comfortable?"