Twenty-six years ago a handful of Washingtonians put together a white-water canoe race on the Potomac River from just below Great Falls to an island just above Little Falls. Most people thought they were nuts.

The seven-mile stretch ran through four sets of churning rapids including one -- Yellow Falls -- deemed so treacherous the boats were ordered to circumvent it.

Nineteen canoes, Folboats and kayaks completed the 1956 course "without serious mishap," according to reports that survive.

Since then the annual Potomac River Whitewater Race has followed an elliptical pattern, rising to become one of the big races in the East, then dwindling in appeal as the sport grew more competitive and even more demanding races developed it. It wound up as good old friendly local competition.

And so came the 26th edition of the series Sunday in sparkling weather sent from heaven. About 100 boats ran and if anything went wrong, it escaped these eyes.

Well, there was the sad plight of the wonderful green boat, No. 61, that set off from the starting line in precarious fashion.

Mike Sottosanti and Chris Goebel paddled frantically from full standing positions. They powered out of the eddy and straight for the fast, boiling water of Wet Bottom Chute, aiming to use the full force of the swift current.

"Those guys know what they're doing," murmured appreciative voices, noting the precise timing of the strokes, the delicate balance, the speed.

Then the boat hit the current. The upstream gunwale dipped, the canoe rocked on her keel, brown water cascaded in and two very strong, very sheepish young men went for a very sudden, very cold and very public bath.

No serious mishap. Scottosanti and Goebel emptied the boat on shore, climbed back in and won their class in 1 hour 10 minutes 35 seconds.

"I think they sat down in the rapids from then on," chuckled Joe Lederle who tallied the times after winning the men's master's kayak class in 1:01:19.

The history of the popular Potomac race mirrors the development of whitewater paddling, which a quarter-century ago was the wacky pursuit of a few crazy thrill-seekers.The first race was designed to prove to the stodgy American Canoe Association that whitewater was as much a sport as flatwater paddling.

In 1956 there were three makeshift classes: tandem canoes with single blade paddle; Folboats and kayaks paddled solo with double blades, and tandem canoes, Folboats and kayaks paddled with double blades.

The easygoing class definitions remain. Sunday there were 16 classes, built around just about any combination of boats and people that could muster three entries. For example: tandem male-female medium-length open canoe, or one-man master's slalom kayak.

The idea, said one veteran, is to maximize classes to maximize winners, "so more people have fun." And what more admirable goal?

Whenever anyone writes about canoeing the wild and scenic Potomac below Great Falls the Park Service calls to remind about the dangers. True, and people unfamiliar with white water and the river should not attempt this stretch without competent company.

That makes the annual race doubly appealing, since it offers a chance for novices to follow experts downriver with safety boats stationed at all the rough spots.

That reasoning was enough to convince my old pal Roughhouse that he and I could survive the mighty Mather Gorge. I didn't bother to tell him about the three-quarter mile portage to the starting line, which nearly did us both in.

We launched in time to see the Sottosanti-Goebel debacle, a highlight of the race, and then we were off. "Thank goodness," wheezed the starter. "You guys start my last page of entries."

Through Wet Bottom we roared, the bow pitching like a sailing ship rounding Cape Horn. Past Difficult Run we plummeted, sideways briefly but shipping no water. Then the Offutt Island chute and Yellow Falls, banned as too perilous those many years ago. Roughhouse thrashed around in the bow like a puppet but we never even needed the bailer.

The final rapids, Stubblefield Falls, is big water but simple. Just point the bow in the middle of the chute and go, go, go.

We slipped a little off-center and waves began pouring over the side. The water gained as we rocked and rolled but we made it, a quarter-full and powering away.

"Roughhouse," I said, "keep this boat straight while I bail." He did and I did, and when there was barely a gallon sloshing around I said:

"Roughhouse, lean a little to the right so I can get these last scoops."

He did and I did, and the rail went under and water poured in and one paddle and the bailer when flying and we came very close to being the first racers ever to capsize in the flat-water lake below the Beltway bridge.

Our time?

Let's just say we finished.