"It is a race yes. But it comes much closer, really, to marathon running. You do it by yourself; against yourself. And for yourself." -- Judy Lawson.

If all goes well, which it never does in boating, Judy Lawson will depart from Annapolis today in a 32-foot sailboat. Her destination is Plymouth, England, 3,000 miles away. But it will only be a brief stop.

In Plymouth, she will drop off Chris Murdoch, the one-man crew who is to help her "across the pond," as the yachties say.

She will have new friends -- 109 other brave (some say suicidal) souls. She will turn her little boat around, perhaps with an oar since it has no motor, hoist sails along with the others and set off June 7 on the return voyage to Newport, R.I.

Alone. Racing singlehanded in a wide and unforgiving sea.

Bill Homewood counts himself lucky. After 19 years working for British Airways in Washington, he rates five weeks' vacation a year.

This year, his vacation starts Wednesday, when he will take the last of the provisions from his apartment in Alexandria to his boat in Annapolis.

On Thursday morning, at first light, he is to cast off lines and make sail for England in a 32-foot, 3,000-pound trimaran called Third Turtle. Alone. f

He hopes to learn enough on the way over to improve his chances on the way back, when he will race against Lawson and 108 others. In all, it will take 10 weeks over and back. British Airways is letting him borrow against next year's vacation.

Lawson, 37, and Homewood, 45 last week, are the Chesapeake Bay's entries in this year's Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race, widely regarded as the most demanding sailboat race there is.

Lawson will share honors with Joan Connors as first American women to compete. Homewood no doubt will be the first to compete by borrowing against next year's leave time.

The OSTAR race is a romantic's dream. It started in the late 1950s when Britain's Sir Francis Chichester and Blondie Hasler wagered half a crown over a pint of beer that one could beat the other in a wind-powered race to America. No motors allowed.

The first race didn't happen until 1960, with five entries. Chichester won in 40 1/2 days. OSTAR has been repeated every four years since. In 1976, some 600 entries were processed and 125 boats raced. Only 73 finished. Seven were sunk or abandoned. Many more gave up and turned around. Two skippers perished, the first OSTAR deaths.

This year, there were more than 1,000 entry inquiries, which shows the strange ways in which sailor's minds work. Race organizers limited the fleet to 110 vessels.

There are three OSTAR classes based on boat lenght up to 56 feet. Beyond that, the trasatlantic sailors do not bother with rules or ratings or handicaps, the bane of most offshore racing.They sail the wind and the first boat into Newport wins the trophy.

That event likely will occur as early as the end of June. Today's boats are much faster than Chichester's and Hasler's. The record now stands at 20 days 13 hours.

Lawson has sailed for 20 years and makes her living as a sailing writer. She has raced at international levels and made her first solo voyage last year in the 635-mile Newport-Bermuda race.

Her boat is a narrow, fiberglass Danish speedster that she brought to Annapolis from Palm Beach, singlehanded through storms. "She's a lovely lady and God, she's fast," Lawson said last week.

The boat is newly named the Serta Perfectsleeper in honor of the Serta mattress company, which put up $75,000 to sponsor Lawson's bid. "That's her name," Lawson said, "but she'll always be Red Rocket to me."

Third Turtle, Homewood's boat, was third into Newport in the 1976 race under the guidance of Michael Birch, who has a new boat this year.

Homewood, second in class in the 1977 Newport-Bermuda singlehanded race, doesn't have any rich benefactors, although he tried hard to get one. He sold his house to buy Third Turtle last year and paid for most of the revisions and provisions with a little help via discounts from some firms.

The lean, angular native of Britain now seems just as pleased that he found no sponsor. "There's such a thing as being owned," he said bitterly. He wants none of it.

Lawson's boat is a sturdy conventional monohull especially rigged for open ocean. The vessel looks seaworthy, although certainly she'll be no more than a tiny dot on a wide sea.

Third turtle, by comparison, looks about as seaworthy as a water spider. She's spindly and lean, like her owner, devilishly fast and devoid of creature comforts.

"She has tremendous strength," Homewood insists. She'll neet it. Trimarans can sail 20 knots and better, more than twice the top speed of Lawson's single-hull. The problem with multihulls is holding them back in a storm so they don't dive down waves and pitchpole in the troughs, end-over-end.

Trimarans are stable, their fans say. Yes, say their detractors, just as stable upside-down as right-side-up.

Neither Homewood nor Lawson has yet devised a grand plan. At least they claim they haven't. Both will battle weariness the first two days until outside the English Channel shipping lanes, the most dangerous such lanes in the world.

Then they must choose -- north along the great circle route, the shortest way to Newport by 100 miles, or south and then west along the rhumb line. The wind will tell them where to go.

"Everyone has a grand plan," said Lawson. "The grander the plan, the less likely you'll end up following it."

Either way, the boats will battle most of the way against prevailing westerly winds.

But that's still a long way off. Homewood doesn't even know how he'll get out of the Chesapeake Thursday.

"When I wake up, I'll look around. If the wind is from the south, I'll go north through the C&D Canal. If it's north, I'll go south to Norfolk."

And Lawson has her doubts. "We don't really know when we'll get off," she confided as she surveyed the clutter on the dock and the empty stowage space aboard Perfectsleeper three days ago. "That's the way with boats. You never know . . ."

But they both know they'll be at Plymouth June 7, with the fierce fire of adventure in their eyes.