I was on hands and knees for the fourth straight day, wrestling with varnish that refused to go on properly, when Shipwreck, an old boating pal, came careening down City Dock in Annapolis on a rusty bicycle, cradling a paper sack.

"I figured out what you're doing wrong," he shouted cheerfully, extracting a six-pack. "You're trying to varnish without beer!"

If only it were that simple.

The prettiest thing on any boat is varnished woodwork, or "brightwork," as it's called. It glistens in the sun like crystal and the rich grain of the teak or mahogany beneath comes shining through.

Everyone loves varnish but you don't see it much on boats anymore and, after spending the last couple of weeks trying to fathom the intricacies of this ageless paint without pigment, I'm beginning to know why.

Varnishing is an anachronistic, ornery, time-consuming horror. This is a substance that, for fear of dew, refuses to go on in the morning or in the evening. It won't adhere on humid days, and you can't varnish if there's a wind to kick dust up. Dust is the enemy. Even pollen can mess you up. Varnish won't brush out properly if the temperature is under 55, either, and on a hot day it bubbles up.

You practically have to make an appointment to spread the stuff, and bring a thermometer. "I'd say between 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon, that's the hours to varnish this time of year," said Cov Scotten, the professional at Hartge's in Galesville, where he said people pay $28 an hour for his varnishing services.

"The trouble today is people don't keep their varnish up," said Scotten. "You need to varnish twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. If you don't, the weather tears it up and, when you let it go, it costs you."

As the new, part-owner of a 19-year-old boat with considerable exterior brightwork, I'm coming to grips with varnish and the costs of letting it go.

The teak on Mad Willy looked fine when we put her up for the winter, but by springtime the varnish was coming off in huge, yellow scabs.

"Strip it and start over," was the universal advice of experts, who said that with varnish you can't patch the bad spots because they show up pale.

So we had a little stripping party where we took down a few test sections with a chemical that burns nice holes in the deck if it lands there, as it did when the kids played kick-the-can with the stripper pot.

After you strip, you scrape, and after you scrape, you strip again, to get the remaining old varnish off. After that you scrape again, and strip and scrape until it's all gone.

Then you burnish the wood with bronze wool and, after that, you sand it with medium-grit paper to level it out, after which you sand it smooth with fine grit, then stain it if you like and seal it. Then you must remove all traces of dust, and finally you can begin considering the first coat of new varnish, if there's time left before winter haul-out.

And how many coats do you need?

"I'd say 10," said Charlie Gillis, who has been working on boats since he was a 12-year-old summertime bottom-scraper at the venerable Trumpy's yard in Annapolis.

"At least five," said Scotten, who has varnished at Hartge's since 1969.

"Ten or 12 layers, the more the better," said Marcie Patterson, who is spending the spring revarnishing Sakonnet, a beautiful, old wooden motor yacht used these days in the Chesapeake chartering trade.

"Eight coats," said Timmy Kerns, who is refitting a 40-foot racing yacht for its owners and who keeps his $20, badger-hair varnish brush perpetually hanging by a string in a pot of turpentine, like some religious icon.

And naturally, between every coat you must sand everything all over again, because varnish won't stick to varnish unless it's roughed-up first.

The odd thing is, as taxing and time-consuming as varnishing is, folks who fix up boats for a living claim it's their favorite job, the most satisfying thing they do.

Naturally. They're working by the hour.

Me? I see varnish in my dreams. I woke up the other night drowning in the stuff.

I watch the NCAA basketball tournament and all I can see is the floor.

Boys, can you run a little softer? All that varnish!