Old sea salts have an axiom about the rigors of open-water sailing: "The first 30 days to windward are the hardest," they say.

By that, they mean one can even get used to the misery of sailing into an oncoming blow.

Paul Woodard wouldn't know about that. He's back home after two years and nine months on the ocean, during which he made his way entirely around the world.

But the longest windward passage he suffered was seven days, and that was only because of a fluke in the weather.

Woodard has no horror stories to tell. He didn't crash or nearly crash, into any other boats. He only ran aground once, and that time fairly gently.

He battled no raging seas, never once got lost and almost nothing went wrong with the boat. He didn't even rip a sail.

Sound unlikely?

Not for Woodard.

"I guess you could say that I'm too fussy," the seafarer said last week, "but I was always aware that Felicity (his 41-foot Morgan yawl) was the only thing within hundreds of miles that would keep me afloat. And I knew it had 13 holes through the bottom, any one of which could start leaking at any time.

Those holes -- cockpit drains, fittings for the head and the engine and the sink drain -- got checked every two hours when Woodard was at sea.

He checked his position every day with a sextant, and checked in every evening with a network of ham radio operators that tracks the voyaging yachts.

He checked his spars and lights and battery and engine fluids, the sails, the decks, the lines and the rigging. And nothing ever went seriously wrong in almost three years, which is the way it often goes with too-fussy people.

"I have nothing to write about," said Woodard.

He returned to Selby Bay, south of Annapolis, last weekend and tied Felicity up at her old slip. His friends were there to greet him, and many asked him the same question.

What does a man like Woodard learn from 33 months traveling around the world, with only himself to blame if something goes wrong?

"I don't think it made any real change in me at all," said Woodard. "I proved to myself that I was up to the challenge of going on, even when I was discouraged. But I never really expected not to be. I know that doesn't sound very modest.

"I was very surprised at the ease of the passage and I was pleased by the weather. But I hadn't included any long passages where I would be competing with the weather or the currents and I didn't get any."

Woodard is in his 40s. He once was assistant attorney general for congressional relations under John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst.

He learned navigation from a book given him by L. Patrick Gray, the former director of the FBI.

Some years ago, he quit the government and started his own business, a consulting outfit called Studies in Justice. Then he decided to go around the world in a sailboat.

Oceangoing sailboats aren't cheap, and to ease the burden Woodard had a partner, Washington lawyer Bill Goodwin. They were going to make the voyage together, but it didn't work out.

"If I was too fussy," said Woodard, "Bill probably wasn't fussy enough.We had some problems."

They left Annapolis through a cold drizzle in December 1976, with a gaggle of friends at the dock waving farewell.

They lasted together through Miami, the Bahamas, the Panama Canal and across the Pacific from the Galapagos Islands to the Marquesas. The last was the longest nonstop sea passage of the entire journey -- 23 days -- and at the end of it the partnership was on the ropes.

They parted. Goodwin went on for a year of touring through the islands on his own, and Woodard stayed with the boat.

Today, Woodard doesn't look much different from the December day he left Annapolis. His skin is bronzed from months in the sun, and the freckles stand out in little pale circles.

The hands seem bigger dangling like anvils at the end of brown arms, each knuckle pockmarked with a red scab from some misadventure with a winch or a fitting. His shoulders are broad and muscles more clearly defined.

But his easy smile and measured way of addressing questions haven't changed.

He has the globe-girdling route traced out on a worn National Geographic map of the world, and the tortured fingers point to places he's been along the fuzzy red line.

The names roll off his tongue easily. The Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Tahiti, Fiji, the New Hebrides, Australia, Port Moresby, Bali, Christmas Island and the Cocos islands in the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles, Madagascar, Durban, Cape Town, Fortaleza in Brazil, the West Indies, the Bahamas, Miami, Annapolis.

His greatest pleasures came in the short hauls where islands are closely grouped. "I could get up for a four- or five-day passage, he said, "but I think any yachtie will tell you that the long ocean passages are no fun -- at least not for the owner.

"There's just too much to worry about, with constant maintenance and constant attention to navigation. The crew makes a big difference. I had a guy join in the South Pacific who came aboard with his own sextant. He knew more than I did. He checked me out the first days to make sure I knew where I was going.

"With him aboard, it was a pleasure."

But good crew is harder to get in Bali or New Guinea.

He ironed out his crew problems for the voyage around the tip of Africa when Michelle Cormier signed on in the Seychelles. She's an American for whom Woodard has a special fondness, and after she'd helped out for 3 1/2 months she flew home from Cape Town, but rejoined Felicity in Barbados for the final leg home. She was still aboard last week.

They saved the worst for last. Off the South Carolina coast two weeks ago, Felicity flew in the face of a gale-force northeaster.

Woodard had to run into Georgetown, S.C., and the entry included a short haul over shoal water where the waves built to 10 feet or more. One tail roller swept over the gunwales and put the cockpit awash -- the "most serious brush with danger we'd had in the whole world," said Woodard.

Felicity came home last weekend to her slip at Selby Bay, and when she arrived there were banners, flags and crepe whipping in the breeze for a welcome home party.

The flags are still flying.

"I was going to take them down," said Woodard, the world traveler, "but I figured out they scared the birds, and it's been a terrible problem with birds droppings on the decks.

Ever practical, he keeps his pretty boat perfect.