Last weekend for Father's Day, I got a new sports shire with an alligator on it - my first one. I liked it so much that I put it on immediately and wore it for the next 49 hours.

Most of the 15 men I was with must have had new Father's Day shirts, too. They didn't change theirs for a long time, eitehr.

They looked great on Saturday, but by Monday morning it was a pretty pungent crew.

Rob Pennington was the first to crack. We watched him sneak back to the stern with a cup of water, extract a toothbrush and set to work. That's personal hygiene when you're ocean racing.

This is to dispel the image of yacht racing as a sport conducted by gentlemen in crisp blue blazers who spend their off watches tucked in fresh linen.

On Running Tide, the sleep system is "hot-bunking."

Which means that when one sailor's three-hour shift on deck is done, he tumbles down the hatch, finds a crewman to replace him and kicks him out of his bunk.

Then the new man jumps in, clothes and all, before the blanket gets cold.

Running Tide, the Washington area's premier offshore racing yacht since the early 1970s, has six bunks for the crewmen. But there are eight to a watch and some of the bunks are crammed full of beer.

If you can't find a bunk, you collapse on sail bags, which is great until the crew on watch makes a sail change and takes away your bed, replacing it with a soggy one from above.

They call Running Tide the aluminum bullet. She's built for speed, not comfort. Making the Annapolis-to-Newport race on her is like taking a three-day ride on a flatcar tacked to the back of the Metroliner.

You wind up beat and beat up. It feels very good when it stops.

A year and a half ago, Al Van Metre, Tide's skipper, invited me abroad for the Fort Lauderdale-to-Key West race. I sat in the cockpit most of the way, watched the excitement and though I had a pretty good idea of how it all works.

This year, he invited me back for Annapolis-to-Newport and I looked forward to more of the same.

But when he read off the two watch lists, he had my name on one. It was three hours on, three hours off the rest of the way.

"There's two can'ts on a racing yacht," Dave Weaver advised in a spare moment. "Can't do and can't stay."

I thought about that and the 50-mile swim to the Jersey shore and decided could do.

Tide is as free of frills above as she is below. You sit on the gritty deck and wait for things to go wrong. When they do, you race to a machine and make amends.

My initial job was grinding. That put me on a pair of massive Barient winches used to haul sails in, haul crewmen to the head of the mast and haul anything else that was too big or mean to haul any other way.

Two men work it. "Keep your chin in the middle," said Tim Kerns. "Otherwise, the handles will knock you head off."

The winch has three speeds. You grind one way as fast as you can until it won't grind any more. Then you reverse into lower gear and grind that until it won't move. Then you shift to third. Then the man holding the line flips a switch and you're in overdirve and the whole process starts again.

A man on the grinder spells relief "H-E-L-P."

There are three divisions to every watch crew. The wizards sit in the stern and figure out what to change to go faster. The veterans on the foredeck figure out how to do it. Then the animals at middeck provide the muscle.

"I know how to sail," an aminal told me. "When they say grind, I grind; when they stop I stop." All of this often takes place in what yacht racers call a "hostile environment."

Typical hostile conditions on a yacht involve setting a new sail on a slick deck that's canted at 30 degrees while 35-knot winds hurl buckets of spray through the fog at midnight, 150 miles from nowhere.

And your boots leak.

Oddly, the thrill of this strange and expensive sport is not the chance to watch the world slip silently by in an empty and endless sea. It's power.

"She's stretched to the max right now," Weaver said, as we perched high on the windward rail and watched the jib sheet lift its sail track a quarter inch off the deck. Gray seas swept by a foot below.

"That track is bolted through the deck, and it's pulling up because the bolt is digging the washer into the mahogany piece underneath," Weaver said.

"We'll sheet it in more if we have to. The harder you drive her the better she goes. But if something gives, the whole rig comes down, so it better not give."

It didn't.

Tide was fifth across the line at Newport, done in by doldrums south of Montauk Point. But her crew had a thundering beat down the Chesapeake Bay and a hair-raising drive from Montauk to the finish to reflect on.

Just south of Block Island, the coastal forecast came over the radio.

A ferocious storm had passed over Rhode Island and was heading our way, spewing hail. "All mariners seek refuge," the voice said.

"Hot dog," a crewman shrieked.

"Let's go get 'em."