There is, said a big wig of an American 12-meter syndicate doing battle in Newport, one bauble prized above all others among America's Cup groupies.

It's a T-shirt, an official with one name and number of a Cup challenger emblazoned over the heart. It is only available to 12-meter crew members, who may dispose of such shirts at their own diabolical whim.

"There is no doubt that some young ladies have paid a terrible price for one of those shirts," said the source, who contended he is too old to be involved.

"Phooey," said a long-legged damsel who has done duty in these wars. "They only give them away after the armpits are rotted out."

It is another America's Cup summer and the streets are alive in Newport. At the Chamber of Commerce the line stretches three deep around a semicircular information desk manned by two harried women.

Fifteen people wait to use the chamber's bathroom. There is a list of optional facilities posted on the men's room door.

At a makeshift press headquarters in the armory downtown the phone booths are full of frazzled reporters phoning Australia and France and England. At the desk, Katie Davis patiently helps a yachting fan who wants to know, "Where do they keep the 12-millimeter yachts?"

Ten years ago the burghers of Newport feared their seaside city of 30,000 would collapse when the Navy pulled out of its massive installations here. The Navy left in 1973.

Today they worry that it will explode.

"I came here to relax," said Jim Wheeler, a news executive from Worcester, Mass., who retired 18 months ago and moved to Newport to sail and sleep.

"You can't drive downtown, you have to wait an hour to get a meal in a restaurant, everything is expensive. I'm getting out."

Once Thames Street, the narrow little drag that winds along the wharfs past quaint and tumbledown bars and businesses, was a place nice folks avoided.

"A girl didn't come down here alone after dark," said Flan Lippincott, who summered here in her childhood. "It was all sleazy bars, drunk sailors at dawn, MP's and cops."

Now, with the Navy gone, Thames Street gets trendier by the day. Instead of drunken sailors at dawn, you see Summer (Huey) Long strolling at 8 a.m. in blue blazer and Breton red slacks, accompanied by an equally elegant gentleman friend.

Long's incredible robin's egg blue ocean racer Ondine lies peacefully at the dock at Newport Offshore. Trailing him by 50 yards, toddling along Thames Street purposefully in tightest white yachting ducks imaginable, is the most beautiful girl in the world.

"The beauties always find the rich ones," grumps an unimpressed observer. "It's uncanny."

Long is the father of this year's America's Cup optimists, 24-year-old Russell Long, skipper of the 12-meter Clipper. He freshly graduated from Harvard, Captain Positive.

When Long comes back from unceasing defeats at sea at the hands of Dennis Conner, who runs the almost unbeatable yacht Freedom, he wears his daily smile and emits sunny forecasts.

He and his crew lately have come under the protective guidance of Werner Erhard, the est man. So far, it isn't working.

No one really expects est or anything else to save Clipper from the onslaught of Conner, whose boat and crew have earned the nickname "the machine." Conner and Freedom are bringing a harsh new professionalism to the America's Cup Defense.

There is a presumption among those who have never seen a Cup campaign that the days in Newport are long, rosy adventures for the yacht crews and that the nights are longer and ever more adventuresome.

This is no longer true.

The Freedom machine is a perfect example. The 25 or so handsome young men that work for the Freedom Enterprise Syndicate would love to carouse, but they rarely have time.

"You don't really get to see too many of the 12-meter guys anymore," said one young woman. "They might have a drink at the Black Pearl or the Candy Store (a bar), but they're mostly home in bed by 10."

The Freedom people have a task-masteer who keeps them stropped to the razor's edge.

Arnie Schmeling grinds a winch on Enterprise, Freedom's trail-horse boat.

He is 50 years old, which makes him the oldest grinder on a 12-meter by about 20 years.

He is a Long Beach, Calif., patrolman with 24 years on the force; he played semipro football for 20 years despite seven knee operations; his grandfather's brother was world heavyweight boxing champion Max Schmeling.

Arnie Schmeling is one hard dude, and his job when he isn't grinding winches is physical training chief for Freedom Enterprise.

He rousts the crewmen at 5:30 a.m. seven days a week and has them on the lawn of their elegant rented Newport Mansion by 6 a.m. for 45 minutes of exercise, followed by wind sprints.

Twelve meter crewmen traditionally have resembled crosses between gladiators and wastrels. This year, they just look like gladiators.

One of the last vestiges of the genteel school of yacht racing was Baron Marcel Bich, who has spent 10 years and perhaps $10 million buying and building at least eight 12-meter yachts in his quest for the Cup.

This year for the first time ever, his France 3 actually won a race. In fact, it did handsomely.

But 10 years have taken its toll on the baron. The long string of defeats evidently embittered the ballpoint pen magnate and he is seen only rarely these days, still dressed in his perfect white linen suit and white yachting cap.

The baron keeps another yacht in Newport -- the three-masted schooner Shenandoah, an immense blue giant of the seas on which his guests and observers can ride in comfort.

Three elderly women stopped by to see Shenandoah at the dock on Goat Island last week.

"Is this one of the racing yachts?" one asked.

"No," said a bemused dock rat. "It's a yacht tender. He uses it to get to his racing yacht."

For all the hoopla, the 12-meters under full sail remains an incredible and stirring sight. Last week Freedom and Enterprise, on an off day, went to sea for sail testing.

They were on a downwind course when someone noticed a mass of small boats descending on them. It was the Ensign fleet, racing in its national championships.

"We'd better get out of here," said the Enterprise skipper. He called over the radio for Freedom to jibe.

But Freedom had sail trouble and had to hold her course. The crews of both boats were chagrined as the big boats sliced into the wave of racers. They expected fists to wave, curses to fly.

Instead the Ensign crews, in the midst of racing for their U.S. title, scurried down from the windward sides of their boats and peered under their sails, mouths agape to see the 12s roar past.

There really are two Newports, the crowded, glittering shops and pubs along the waterfront and the vast estates at the top of the bluffs, where Vanderbilts and Astors once romped.

The 12-meter crewmen have taken over some of the mansions, and for the summer it's there that they hide from the masses.

There two types of masses, as well -- those arriving by land and those by sea.

The harbor at the foot of Thames Street is jammed today with power yachts and sailing yachts, glittering at the docks as bobbing at their moorings.

The people who come to Newport in yachts run the spectrum from hard-handed fishermen in 30-footers to bombastic businessmen in floating gin mills.

A few yacthsmen are here to observe the 12-meter races, and there is a die-hard crowd of 40 or 50 big boats that puts to the sea each morning with the racers and follows them out to the start and around the course.

Many of these yachts are chartered. There was a report of one motor yacht that last week fetched a price of $11,000 for a five-day charter.

When these floating plastic condominimus get to the race course, the men at the helms sometimes care not for getting stuck at the back of the pack.

"Look out," said Paul Davis, driving Crusing World magazine's 24-foot Mako behind the American challengers one day.

A huge yellow motor yacht blasted past, practically on plane, her engines roaring.

The wash from her prop rocked the Mako and buckets of water sloshed over the gunwale, nearly swamping the little skiff and her six passengers.

The big boat's skipper never looked back.

The name that keeps popping up in Newport is Ted Turner. Turner and Courageous have done pitifully in the trials this year and were excused from participation today, but the people were still streaming to see Ted despite his failure.

"Ted Turner for president," the bumper stickers urge.

"We really do love Ted," says the woman at the Chamber of Commerce.

"Where's Ted? Where's Courageous?" ask new arrivals in town, day after day.

Turner isn't seen all that much. He's out sailing most days, arriving at Banister's Wharf early and coming back ashore at suppertime.

He and his tactician, Gary Jobson, walk to the boat from Courageous' mansion on the hill each morning, but that's long before the crowds get up.

On Saturday, a lay day for Courageous, tourists were startled to see Turner lounging in a Courageous shed behind a privacy fence at the foot of Bannister's wharf.

A woman pushed her son toward the locked gate. He talked briefly with a youngster on the other side, then rolled up his T-shirt and forced it through the fence.

His colleague carried it to Turner, who signed it with a green felt-tip pen.

The kid put it on, and grinned from here to next week.