The fastest, sleekest armada of million dollar sailing yachts in the western hemisphere raced out of Tampa Bay this weekend under acres of billowing sails so bright even the pelicans stopped fishing to stare.

The boats, 29 to 81 feet of aluminum, fiberglass and Kevlar were at the start of a 138-mile sprint down the Gulf coast, the first race in a six-race series for the 81 boats that will cover 1,000 miles in the next month from Florida to the Bahamas.

We pause here for a moment of sheer envy.

The Southern Ocean Racing Circuit (SORC) is to sailing what Le Mans is to car racing. We're talking money, and yacht owners who don't mind spending it to capture every gust of downwind speed.

The economy may flounder and municipalities sink slowly under a sea of debt, but the elite racers of this world, where one sail can cost $20,000 and a yacht as much as $5 million are still riding high and handsome into tropical sunsets.

"Boats that will win in a class like this aren't owned by plumbers," says Allen Crawford, one of a 22-man crew sailing Windward Passage, a 73-footer that is the circuit's sentimental favorite.

Most of the top boats in Windward's maxi class compete about two years or until the discovery of the latest space-age polymer. In that company, Windward Passage is an ancient mariner. She is 13 years old, has a wooden hull and is still winning.

"It's just a very well-designed boat," says William Johnson, an Atlanta real estate developer who will campaign his boat this year in the world racing circuit from the Bahamas to Hawaii, Jamaica, England, Spain and Sardinia. And how does Johnson manage his financial empire while sailing the seven seas?

"I have very good business partners," he said.

Marvin Green brings his office with him. The Connecticut communications executive has a business computer and a telex system on board his new 81-foot aluminum-hulled yacht Nirvana. You wouldn't be deprived of many comforts if you spent your winter sailing with Green. His boat is outfitted with a washer/dryer, suburban-sized bathtub, a microwave oven large enough to broil Jaws, a Betamax, stereo system and a solid teak wood dining table with China setting for 12.

There is much money to be spent and very little to be made in ocean racing. Prizes are generally silver cups and whatever ego satisfaction you can gain. There are exceptions.

"It means something professionally to me," says Tom Dreyfus, a 49-year-old New Orleans boat builder. "To the other guys, it's a game."

Dreyfus is a short, wide-eyed man with the energy of an exposed power line. He likes to talk and doesn't mind telling anyone who will listen what is wrong with the white-haired gentry who control yacht racing. Since Ted Turner retired from the sport, Dreyfus has done his best to add a splash of flamboyant color to this crew that looks as if it served as a model for the preppy handbook.

Two years ago Dreyfus won the SORC circuit with a boat called Louisiana Crude. That victory, however, was disqualified because of a dispute concerning his boat's rating, a sophisticated handicapping system based on the length of a boat's waterline and its sail area.

The following year Dreyfus showed up for the SORC at St. Petersburg with a yacht dubbed Your Cheating Heart, which had a tape measure painted on its hull. This year he arrived with another new yacht, this one named Mea Culpa, which he is quick to point out does not mean "I'm sorry."

"I was involved inadvertently in a scandal. But I was clean," said Dreyfus, standing with a group of skippers and boat owners at a yacht club bar.

Dreyfus pulled off a coup for this year's circuit by "persuading" Tom Blackaller to skipper his boat. Blackaller is one of the world's most respected captains and the skipper of Defender, one of three boats that will be defending America's Cup this summer. Because yacht racing is an amateur sport no one is supposed to be paid. And the sun might set tomorrow over the Atlantic here.

"He's my hired gun," said a winking Dreyfus, who like most owners sails as part of the crew handling duties ranging from steering to dishwashing. "I may not be the best, but I've got sense enough to get the best."

Most of the boats have a lot of sophisticated navigational gear, from satellite tracking systems to computers that interpret wind and current data. But races are still won by crews that work well together and skippers who know when to wet a finger to the wind and make a judgment call.

The boats that won their classes in the SORC's first race were ones that tacked to shore at one crucial point while the rest of the fleet went to sea in search of winds.

The 80-foot Kialoa was the first boat to return to St. Petersburg, 16 hours 34 minutes after she had left. Windward Passage was 10 minutes behind. But after those times were adjusted for handicap, the old lady had won another one.

Dreyfus and his crew on the Mea Culpa were third in their class, but happy because they also finished third overall among the 81 boats. "We were in the right spot," said Blackaller. "But those other two boats were even further in the right spot."