With so many things in turmoil it stood to reason there eventually would be a boat show crisis. Sure enough, the 20th annual Washington International Boat Show opened for a week at D.C. Armory yesterday, shrunken by defections and threatened by a competing show scheduled for next month in the same arena.

The Washington Area Marine Dealers Association and the Washington Recreational Vehicle Dealers Association have joined forces to run a new exposition at the Armory March 25-29.

The marine dealers (WAMDA) maintain that the venerable Washington International Boat Show has lost its luster in the last decade, due first to the aftermath of the 1968 race riots and later to what they regarded as a lackadaisical attitude on the part of promoters June Campbell and Peter Carroll.

WAMDA first tried to run its own show in January 1978 at Capital Centre, but a huge outdoor tent housing big boats collalpsed under snowfall and the show turned into a financial disaster.

Since then WAMDA has searched without success for another indoor arena. "There just isn't anyplace besides the Armory," said Bob Stickell, president of Washington Marina and a WAMDA stalwart.

This year WAMDA tested Armory policy that no directly competing show could be slated at the facility within six months of an existing show. WAMDA filed suit and the D.C. corportion counsel prevailed on the Armory Board to revise its regulations on grounds a ban on competition restrains free trade, according to Stickell.

WAMDA and the RV dealers got their March Armory dates and marine dealers had to make a choice whether to stay on in the traditional show, switch to the new combined RV-boat show or go in both.

Many, including Washington Marine, Annandale Marine, Backyard Boats, Tri-State Marine and a number of other large firms, have thrown their support to the WAMDA/RV operation.

The result is a significantly smaller Washington International Boat Show. Traditionally, boats and displays covered both floors of the Armory. This year the basement is closed and only the main floor is being used.

Promoter Carroll maintains that the rift evolved because small boat exhibitors had always been relegated to the downstairs in his show. They wanted space on the main floor. He said the dealers who are not represented this year "are the ones nobody will miss anyway."

He and Campbell have filed a $10 million damage suit against WAMDA and the RV association, claiming the organizations and 19 specific members are destroying his business and inducing other dealers to boycott his show.

"I intended to collect every cent that the courts award, too," he said angrily.

Stickell, in response, said there is no boycott. "The only person that has even ever used that word is Peter Carroll," Stickell said.

Both sides concede tht the boat market, declining anyway with the troubled economy, cannot support two separate trade shows. One show probably will fall by the wayside.

Carroll says he plans to expand next year with separate sailboat and power boat shows. WAMDA and the vehicle dealers want dates for separate boat and RV shows for next year.

Both sides are thinking big and waiting for the gate figures.

"The tragedy of this whole thing is that the boat business is going through its worst depression ever, as is the RV industry," said Carroll, the originator of the hugely successful Annapolis In-the Water Boat Show.

The Washington International Boat Show runs through Feb. 22. Hours are 1 to 8 p.m. Sundays and Washington's Birthday, 5 to 10 p.m. weekdays and 1 to 10 p.m. Saturdays.