Mike Ashford says owning a skipjack is like supporting the ballet or the arts. "I feel like a patron of skipjacks."

Skipjacks are the last remaining fleet of working sailboats in America. They left the docks before dawn yesterday to start a new season plying Maryland waters of the Chesapeake Bay, dredging the bottom in pursuit of oysters.

Skipjacks are anachronisms, kept alive by curious twists and turns of Maryland law. But anyone who has watched these broad, powerful vessels working the winter waters under full sail has felt the tug that is the allure of the sea.

Ashford was not immune. He is an airline pilot, owner of a saloon in Annapolis, a Sunday sailor and a romantic.

"I'd always seen them and they were special to me," he said yesterday. "Those boats are so graceful and unique and the people who sail them are, too."

Last year Ashford found himself sitting at his own bar, shooting the breeze with Melbourne Smith, marine artist and builder of the clipper ship replica Pride of Baltimore. Smith had a new project, restoring the 1906 skipjack Minnie B for the City of Baltimore. Minnie B was to be kept as a tourist attraction at the Inner Harbor.

While he was rebuilding, Smith got the notion to build a new skipjack alongside, using the lines and measurements of the old-timer as a guide. Slowly the boat took shape, and folks began wondering what Smith would do with her when he was done.

Evidently, Smith had that all figured out. "I think he knew what he was going to do with it, and he did it," said Ashford.

"He sold it to me."

Ashford paid $92,500 for her. The final sales pitch came when Smith walked into Ashford's bar with a set of trailboards for the boat under his arm. The name on the boards was Anna McGarvey, Ashford's grandmother's name.

Sold.

Last weekend Anna McGarvey had her first test against the other skipjacks in the working boat fleet. As part of Chesapeake Appreciation days, the skipjacks gathered at Sandy Point State Park for racing and a general celebration of the arrival of the new season.

Under the guiding hand of Jim Scharch, an Eastern Shoreman who is the paid captain, Anna McGarvey squared off in the 45-foot-and-smaller class. The winds were northeast at half a gale and all eyes were upon Ashford and his boat.

"He's been sailing up and down the bay telling everybody she's the fastest skipjack on the bay," snorted Stanley Larrimore aboard the Lady Katie, a perennial top finisher in the Sandy Point regatta. "He'll get a good lesson today.

"He says he knows Ted Turner and Walter Cronkite," added Larrimore. "Well, he better call on all his friends now."

Scharch put her over the line in fine form, sailed her up the bay close-hauled to the wind, swung around Baltimore Light and headed for the finish. At the end there was half a boat length between Anna McGarvey and Bart Murphy's Ruby G. Ford, at 90 the oldest boat in the fleet. Anna McGarvey was the winner.

So why does a successful businessman want to buy a skipjack? Ashford says he still isn't sure. "It doesn't work out financially," he said. "If you could buy one at the right price and if it was captain-owned, you might make some money."

But Ashford said he's already sunk another $20,000 in the Anna to get her ready to work. "Doing it this way, there's so much invested it's hard to pay the bills and still wind up with any money," he said.

Still, there's no shortage of people willing to give it a try. This year 19 boats made the trek to the Sandy Point races and 15 more stayed home. That's a total of 34 skipjacks in the working fleet, eight more than there were just two years ago. Six boats have been refitted and revived, and the Dee of St. Mary's joined the fleet last year as the first new skipjack in several decades.

The resurgence of interest in working skipjacks accompanies an improving supply of oysters, the most important food source in the bay. Last year, according to Pete Jensen, Maryland tidewater chief, 2 1/2 million bushels of oysters were sold dockside for about $20 million.

Jensen said oysters suffered dramatically in the late 1960s and early '70s, first from the disease MSX and then from Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972. But in the last few years oyster reproduction has been good and the catch has reflected improving circumstances.

"Years ago," said Jensen, "there was a collective wringing of hands about the decline of the fishery. But today we're getting a lot of young, more aggressive newcomers who have an eye to business. It's a very healthy sign."

Nor does it hurt to have a patron or two, like Ashford.