Ahhh, the sights, sounds and smells of the boatyard in spring . . .

You can't be everywhere at once, but it was a stroke of bad luck that I was off hunting cheeseburgers last week when Big Jim dropped the 500-pound mast on his finger down at Casa Rio Marina in Edgewater. The howl he let out must have been a memorable sound of the boatyard in spring, but I missed it clean.

"We had the thing propped up on two barrels," Jim said later, "and I wanted to roll it over to sand the other side, so I shifted it to the outside edges of the barrels.

"But when I lifted the heavy end to roll it over, I realized the barrel was a little out of place under it, so I nudged it with my foot. Right then, the skinny end falls off the barrel and hits the ground. I heard this crash, like a shot, and I knew I was in trouble. I was balancing it on my shoulder and doing all right, but then the shock wave rolled up and knocked the thing off, and down it came on my hand."

Charlie the carpenter heard the racket and rushed over. Big Jim had broken his pointy finger and wrecked the soft tissue around his thumb. It reminded Charlie of all the times he'd nearly cut his fingers off on power saws, so he sent Jim to Anne Arundel General, where they evidently have a fingers department within the boatyard disaster division.

"They just sew 'em back on," said Charlie, cheerfully holding up his tattered 10. "It's the perils of the trade. Boat carpenters retire when they run out of fingers to hold a wood chisel."

So, you see, it isn't exactly watercress sandwiches and Perrier out here.

Mike Bay, for example, looks like a Libyan terrorist in his sanding-and-painting costume.

"Yeah," said Bay, buckling up his gas mask, slipping a turban around his head, adjusting his goggles and revving up an electric sanding gun, "you wait all winter for the first breath of nice, fresh spring air so you can take vacation, drive down to the water and do this."

Bay spent all week hunched under his 30-foot racing sloop grinding deadly toxins off the bottom so he could have a clean surface to spread fresh, new deadly toxins on.

"Danger," it said on an empty bottom-paint can nearby. "Hazards to humans and domestic animals. Keep out of reach of children.

"Corrosive. Causes skin burns. Wear protective clothing such as gloves, long-sleeved cotton shirts, long pants and hat. Causes eye irritation. May be fatal if swallowed. Harmful if absorbed through skin or inhaled. This product may be a dermal sensitizer. Avoid contact with skin, eyes or clothing. Avoid breathing vapor, dust or chips from sanding."

Lovely, and so much for the smells of the boatyard. As for the sights, I see New York officials are worried about something called "boatlock" if too big a marine crowd shows for the Statue of Liberty celebrations July 4. If New Yorkers want a preliminary look at boatlock, they should visit a do-it-yourself yard around Annapolis some sunny weekend in March.

Yet for all its drawbacks, the boatyard remains the place to be this time of year. Casa Rio is among the better ones, with managers Don and Rita Dunbar wedded to the notion people have a right to work on their own boats, no matter how badly they may botch the job. Many marinas nowadays require heavy work to be done by professionals who actually know what they're doing. What fun is that?

Last December, when they hauled my sloop out at Casa Rio, an old waterman watched the operation wistfully.

"It makes me sad," he said, "every time they pull one out. Another season gone by."

But three months later, if you bother to listen, you can hear the whistle of quail in the cornfield edges adjacent to the yard, and the cries of geese overhead, going north. Fish are moving up the rivers to spawn and blue crabs already are stirring in the mud.

From time to time, a warm puff of air blows in across Cadle Creek, carrying the aroma of marshland coming to life.

The travel-lift comes rumbling along a muddy track among the dry-docked fleet, picks out a freshly painted and polished vessel, hoists it up and trundles it away to the launching dock. It's then you hear the happiest sound of the boatyard in spring: