Owners never have been pampered in yacht racing, but these days they don't even get comfortable.

Ten or 15 years ago in the prestigious Southern Ocean Racing Circuit, big-boat owners spent most of the races hanging around in the commodious cockpits, offering occasional comments to their expert skippers.

If the advice often went unheeded, at least the boss sat where he wanted and even got to steer once in a while.

Nowadays the competition is so hot, the financial stake so high and the boats so stripped down, the owner takes orders like everyone else, and the only time he gets the wheel is to motor home.

"All right, you guys on the rail, let's have quiet," John Bertrand barked from the helm of 50-foot Windquest last week during the Lipton Cup race. "Heads out under the lifeline."

Among the voices instantly stilled by the command and the heads thrust out over the rushing Gulf Stream were those of Rich DeVos, founder and chairman of Amway Corp., and his sons Dick and Doug.

All the DeVoses had done to get into this neck-wrenching predicament was to spend over $1 million on boat, tender, sails, electronics and state-of-the-art racing gear, and to put together one of racing's best brain trusts to run the boat.

"We don't know anything about oceans, currents and the weather conditions down here," said Rich DeVos, who was racing in SORC for the first time. "I'm no expert in this. We just had to entrust the decision-making to someone else."

"We came to this regatta to win," said his 30-year-old son Dick, whose previous experience was racing elegant and well-appointed Swan yachts on the Great Lakes, not particularly successfully. "We'll do whatever we have to."

In the Lipton Cup, a 34-mile 'round-the-buoys course back and forth between Miami and Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, that meant mostly serving as ballast.

"Our rating calls for a crew of 14," explained mast man Andy Noble. "You don't have to be a genius to see that in light and moderate breezes like this it doesn't take that many people to put the sails up and down and drive the boat.

"But the boat's so light 27,500 pounds that where you put people becomes very important. Everybody who doesn't have a job to do becomes movable ballast."

That means sitting where you're told, even if it's uncomfortable, and that applies to all -- even the owner.

The Lipton Cup is one of six races in the two-week SORC, which is one of the four top big-sailboat regattas in the world, along with the Admirals Cup in England, the Sardinia Cup in the Mediterranean and the Clipper Cup off Hawaii. (The America's Cup, which runs every three years, is for day-racing 12-meter yachts and is in a class by itself.)

The fastest ocean racers in the world come to the SORC every year, and as a result the regatta has become a testing ground for the latest and most expensive equipment. Since what happens here can make or break companies and their new products, "the circuit" has become a competitive trade show for manufacturers and dealers, even though "professional racing" remains a dirty phrase among yachtsmen.

Windquest, for example, was built of aluminum at Williams and Manchester shipyard in Newport, R.I., on a design by Argentinian German Frers. It carries 25 bags of sails worth perhaps $150,000, all made by Ulmer-Kolius in Houston.

The electronics, including computer printouts every 10 minutes of boat speed, wind speed, wind direction, water current, course, velocity made good and scores of other calculations, are by a company called Ockam. The Barient winches were custom-built by a Clearwater, Fla., company, with aluminum innards and plastic bearings to save weight. The ultralight mast and boom and shackles are by Sparcraft.

If this were a stock car race, Windquest would have more stickers on it than Richard Petty sees in his fantasies.

Because it's yachting, a sport whose governing body disallows advertising on the vessels, there are no stickers, but there's no shortage of manufacturers' representatives on board, maximizing their opportunities.

For example, Windquest's skipper for the series was supposed to be Ulmer-Kolius president John Kolius, but he was busy in Australia at the world 12-meter championships, skippering America II, the New York Yacht Club entry in next year's America's Cup.

So Kolius sent America II tactician and his former associate at U-K, Bertrand. Bertrand holds the silver medal in Finn class from the 1984 Olympics.

Also in Windquest's brain trust for the series, which ends next weekend in Nassau, are Farley Fontenot, Houston loft manager for U-K, who trims the mainsail; and Dave Lindsey, U-K international executive, who handles spinnakers.

Ron Love, president of Sparcraft, the mast-maker, is tactician. Jim Marshall, director of software and marketing for Ockam, is navigator.

Neil Harvey, who designed the winch layout at his Barient dealership in Clearwater, is "pit man," handling the spinnaker and jib halyards and spinnaker pole controls.

Kolius, who organized the crew, also enlisted Fort Lauderdale realtor Mike Smith, Victory '83's bowman in the last America's Cup series, to handle the high-skill athletic challenges on Windquest's pointy end.

Obviously, an SORC win makes Williams and Manchester, Frers, Ulmer-Kolius, Sparcraft, Barient, Ockam and even aluminum look good.

Still, DeVos had to use no little leverage to put together such an impressive team. As volunteer chairman of the America II syndicate, he's raised more than $10 million for Kolius' America's Cup campaign. Also, he spent a good deal of money with U-K on Windquest's sails.

"The arrangement," said DeVos, "was that we'd buy all the sails from him, and in return John would drive, organize the crew and help set up the boat. But then we decided to enter America II in the worlds where she was third , and it would have been bad policy to bring him back in the middle of that."

Even without Kolius, Windquest is doing well. After three races she stood second in class IOR-B to Fujimo, another Frers 50, and third overall in the 55-boat fleet.

In the Lipton Cup she was second to Fujimo. She was fast off the wind, but in that race and throughout the series she has struggled when beating directly into the breeze.

"She just isn't pointing upwind as well as the others," said the bearded Bertrand in a rare moment before the race when he wasn't locked in intense concentration. "It takes time to set these boats up right, and with a Dec. 22 launch, we haven't had time."

Bertrand is a study in how deadly serious the SORC game has grown. In two days of sailing, a full day of practice before the Lipton Cup and all day during the race, he never cracked a smile nor issued an idle remark.

"He's a good helmsman," said one crew member, "but he's too intense. He's not much of a leader. He never tells the guys in the middle of the boat what he's doing, so you don't get involved the way you should. He's a real Finn-type, a one-man band," said the crewman, referring to the singlehanded Olympic class in which Bertrand won his medal.

Bertrand regards chit-chat as the enemy. He shuts it off by order. Nor is he charitable about crew error.

But he can drive a boat fast, and the others pulling the strings on Windquest can, too. It's no palace of gaiety but the job gets done.

At one point Thursday the crew raised a new sail on which U-K had failed to attach tell-tales -- little yarn strings fastened to the leading edge to show if it is adjusted properly.

Smith, the bowman, saw the flaw, jumped into his seat harness and instantly was hoisted along the headstay, skittering diagonally up the sail like a pirate with the tell-tales in his teeth. He fastened a pair one-third of the way up and another two-thirds of the way -- 50 feet off the deck under full racing conditions -- and was back down in a flash, an impressive demonstration of skill and teamwork.

But as good as Windquest's crew and gear are, they aren't perfect. Old-fashioned sailing mistakes cost them any chance of catching Fujimo.

Coming into the second turning mark off Miami, the brain trust misjudged the strength of the Gulf Stream. The nearer they came to the mark, the further north they were washed by the rushing force of the current, so strong it nearly pulled the inflatable buoy under water.

Bertrand spat out an expletive as he crabbed the boat against the current, losing time in order to make the mark.

And at the next rounding, navigator Marshall had his bearings right as Windquest neared the Lauderdale sea buoy, but Bertrand and Love had the wrong buoy in sight. Windquest ended up 200 yards from where she needed to be and Fujimo slid away to a commanding lead.

After the race Bertrand was pleasant enough. "Good job," he told the crew, then went forward and fell asleep on a pile of sails.

"You should have seen him in the Boca Grande race," said Dick DeVos. "He took the wheel at noon and drove nonstop through sail changes, squalls, and all kinds of activity. He didn't turn the wheel over until after midnight, and the whole performance was flawless -- not a lapse." Windquest won that one.

Rich DeVos said it was Dick who lured him into competitive sailing. "I had a Columbia 50 on the Lakes. Dick started racing it and we've just taken it from there."

DeVos now owns a Swan 51 sailboat with a Bertram 48 powerboat as its tender on the Great Lakes, two 150-foot Feadship oceangoing motor yachts, a new Hatteras 60-foot sport fisherman, plus Windquest.

But can money buy the SORC?

"I don't think so," said Dick DeVos. "A fairly high ante is required to play, but once you've anted up, you can't buy the win.

"It's a team effort," he said. "It requires motivation and a dedication to winning."

And, of course, a willingness to do as you're told.

Even on your own boat.

Windquest's fortunes took a plunge in the Ocean Triangle race over the weekend when she finished seventh of 10 boats in her class. That finish moves her well back in the rankings for both class and fleet honors, though she is not out of the running with two races remaining.