It was a day fit for very little -- rainy, windy, dark and raw the way only a spring nor'easter can be. Just two boats lay in the anchorage off Zahniser's yard.

Ours was Stalex, a sturdy, weatherworn 41-foot sloop. The other was a spit-polished 37-foot yawl out of Tucson, a strange place to register a yacht.

The boats rocked and lunged at their lines all night. We worried about dragging anchor and were up at dawn, checking, and saw the other captain doing the same.

Later, with the wind still roaring, we got in the little dinghy and rowed to shore, and when we returned the neighbor was in his cockpit again, tidying up. Though the wind was stiff and wrong-directed, we braved a visit in the timeless habit of sailors socked in by storm.

The man was cordial. He said Tucson was a port of convenience; he was retired, spent much time cruising with his wife, had kin in Arizona and found registering a boat there cheaper than the alternatives.

He described the interior of his boat, which sounded interesting. We kept the conversation up, shouting over the din while rowing the tiny boat to stem the wind. Eventually, we assumed, the man would say, "Come aboard."

But he never did, and in the end we gave up and drifted back to our own four walls, convinced that a fine sailing tradition had been violated.

Out of courtesy, a sailor never sets foot on another's boat unless invited. The flip side, in this case unrealized, is the expectation that a boat owner will welcome visitors aboard once it's clear they bear no ill will.

These social traditions are born of centuries of man's hard times on the water, and even weekend cruisers get to share in them. But lately the pleasant traditions of sailing seem to be falling on hard times in the Chesapeake Bay.

Last week The Post sent a reporter and photographer onto the bay to look at the boating game. Fed by development a quarter-century ago of fiberglass, which made pleasure craft affordable to and maintainable by many, boating in Maryland has grown from about 60,000 craft registered in 1964 to more than 142,000 last year.

An industry now serves the weekend bay sailor, with pubs catering to the nautical type, gourmet carryouts lest he run out of pate, marinas by the score, books and guides to the good anchorages and a growing allegiance to Mount Gay rum, the preferred refreshment of the sailor man.

Armed with pate and Mount Gay, we sailed for five days from Annapolis to Galesville to Solomons to St. Leonard's Creek to Oxford to Trippe Bay to Poplar Island and back to Annapolis, maybe 150 miles in all, and saw the sights and did the things that make Chesapeake boating a delight.

We battled wind and storm and wretched calm, sometimes all three in the same day; sailed all night in dreamy isolation under a full moon; dodged seagoing ships in the dark; caught one small, inedible fish; watched ospreys feeding by the dozens in clear creeks and blue herons soaring over open water, and were boarded by wild ducks demanding handouts.

But what we didn't once encounter, surprisingly, was a particularly friendly fellow boater.

Some old salts later pooh-poohed the notion that friendly sailing has been replaced by suspicion, ignorance of tradition and floating one-upmanship. The salts said today's yachtsman might treasure his privacy more than old-timers did, and probably takes his friends with him when he sails, rather than looking to make new ones along the way. But the sport remains sociable, they said.

The evidence accumulated in five days on the Bay suggests some worthy customs are fading, nonetheless.

Example: We slid into Oxford, a postcard-neat sailing paradise on the Eastern Shore, early one day in need of fuel. There was a steady breeze as she neared the dock and with just two men aboard, a little shoreside help in docking was anticipated.

Happily, two fellows were having coffee near the gas pump and three folks were chatting in a sloop tied at the fuel dock.

But as Stalex drew near, no one moved. Nor did anyone help when the bow man leaped off and ran up the dock to secure a line and his partner abandoned wheel and throttle to make fast the stern. The onlookers just stood by.

Why would five sailing people doing nothing not aid an approaching vessel? Were they worried they'd be sued if something broke? Did they even recognize help was appropriate? Had they never landed a boat themselves?

Even the harmless custom of waving suffers. Traditionally, any two boaters meeting in a situation other than a traffic jam in a busy harbor offered the courtesy of a smile and a wave, like Volkswagen drivers did in 1955. These days you're lucky to get an obscene gesture.

Nor is there much salty talk in the marinas that have blossomed in every creek and cove. There are beautiful boats that don't move from their slips often, and the conversation centers more on business deals than sheet bends and ground tackle.

The old custom for new people in port was to wander around and provide exaggerated, harrowing tales of their experiences preceding arrival.

I approached some folks in one Eastern Shore harbor with a store of lies I was dying to tell, but had the decency to ask first about their boat, just to break the ice.

"It's a Cal 27," the owner said, adding in a defensive rush, "but we just bought it last week to try it out. We're planning to get a much bigger boat soon so we can have a lot more friends over and party on it. This is sort of a test for us, just to see what it's like. Something affordable. We thought we'd start with something small and move up."

It dawned on me later that this fellow was embarrassed because his first boat, 10 feet longer and five times as expensive as any boat I've owned in 30 years on the water, was too small.

My personal theory is that while there are 2 1/2 times as many boats tied up in Maryland's pretty creeks and rivers as there were 20 years ago, there are about the same number of sailors. Maybe fewer.

The nonsailors don't know the traditions and never will, and the good sailors are too fed up to bother trying to keep them alive. They concentrate instead on the things that don't change: the wind and the water.

Next: A howling blow and a wild sail into Indian country.