A recent story in the Wall Street Journal noted that recreational interests in the United States are changing.

In a 1980 survey, the paper said, the favorite recreational pastime of Americans was something called "partying." In 1965, the story said, it was baseball.

What is partying? The Post wanted to know, so it sent a man to the partying headquarters of the United States, Key West. This is the place that is called, by natives, "the last resort." With good reason.

"Partying," said the best source that could be found, "is getting righteously wrecked. The only thing is, you have to have a reason. Like after a softball game, or during a softball game. Or even if there's going to be a softball game."

The best parties, it became clear, are somehow linked with events of passing significance but some physical duress, like softball games. The best partying, the intrepid researcher found out, comes after ocean yacht races.

Offshore yacht races involve a modicum of danger, which only heightens the great sense of release that yachtsmen feel when at last they touch shore.

Some people involved in offshore yachiting are boat bums, but a good percentage are high pressure professionals, such as bankers and lawyers and businessmen.

It is very amusing to see a banker get off a fast boat that has just raced from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, emit a loud roaring sound, grab the first woman that goes by and begin a sequence of leering, obscene advances. For some insane reason the women seem to find it amusing, too.

This is part of the mystery called "partying."

The annual Lauderdale-Key West yacht race is, according to people who should know, largely a good excuse for a three-day party. It's a tuneup to the prestigious three-week Southern Ocean Racing Conference in February, but winning it has no meaning beyond itself.

"We follow the rum line to get there," said the navigator of one boat. That is a play on "rhumb line" -- the shortest route by sea. The navigator was alluding to the Mount Gay rum party that is one of the major attractions of the first day in port at Key West.

"All the booze is free, all the beer is free," mused Annie Gardner, captain of the yacht Deuces Wild, which was third in its class in this year's race, sailing with an all-female crew.

"You sail 40 hours without sleep and then you don't go to sleep for another 12 or 14 hours," she said. "You don't want to miss anything. And there's so many men. We do love the men."

Partying may involve sex, drugs and alcohol. Sometimes it gets out of hand.

So it was with Andy Ogilvie, crewman on Running Tide, who was staggered by the overwhelming availability of whatever it was that he couldn't resist his first night in port. And staggering all the next day.

"I ran into a rum front," he said blearily, "with snow."

The Key West partying was further enhanced by the presence of a film crew from the TV show "P.M. Magazine." You can't go anywhere unusual anymore without a film crew around.

A yacht named Insanity was the appropriate venue for the marriage of Bruce French and Connie Findlay. "I think it's wonderful," said the bride's grandma, perched, in warm mink stole, on the dock overlooking the sea. "They were going to elope, you know."

Instead they were partying. As was Dewey Frasier, who ran into a mean front his first night in town.

"I was in Captain Tony's bar," he said, "just in the bathroom, you know. Some guy said, 'Hurry up,' so I told him I was just finishing up."

Next thing Frasier knew, the door was coming down and three huge guys were beating him about the head and face.

"I think I'm going to sue," he said. "You think I've got a case?"

The partying at Key West was basically tame. It was localized in the same abandoned Navy base where Cuban refugees were processed and incarcerated during the sea lift. Guards were everywhere, keeping the public out.

There was a reggae band playing at the Mount Gay rum party, but it kept leaving the bandstand.

"When are you guys going to play again?" the Post investigator asked a conga drum player.

"Don't know, mon," said the drummer. "We partying."

Partying involves a willful suspension of civilized rules but there really isn't much danger. When it's over, all the bankers and lawyers and doctors get back into their BMWs and zoom home, and the boat bums get back into their bosses' fast yachts and slip away, and before you know it, it's just as if nothing had happened at all.

Imagine that.