"What we need," said Nick, the bowman on a sailboat called Right Stuff, which was struggling in the Great Cities Challenge match race regatta here, "is a wire that runs straight into the skipper's brain."

No, he wasn't suggesting mutiny. He just wanted to know what was on the skipper's mind, which was hard to discern in the roar issuing from the skipper's mouth.

Welcome, Nick, to the world of match racing, where the tiniest mistakes make even a world-class skipper such as Gary Jobson go beet red and use words he probably doesn't use routinely at home.

"This is mano a mano combat, as intense as sailing gets," said Tony Parker, a Washington lawyer and veteran match racer. Parker slipped past Jobson and two other top regional skippers to win the Great Cities trophy last weekend, racing 30-foot, S-2 class sloops in a steady southeasterly at the mouth of the Severn River.

"It's one on one. You win or lose, and not necessarily because you have the faster or slower boat. It's athletic chess."

Most Americans have come in contact with sailboat match racing in the form of the America's Cup, competitive sailing's most prestigious event. The Cup commands so much attention, one wonders why match racing is rare outside the big event, and why most other big-time sailboat racing is conducted in large fleets.

Jobson, an international match racer with one winning Cup effort under his belt (tactician on Courageous, 1977), wonders, too. Three years ago, he organized the Liberty Cup, which this June will attract eight of the top match racing skippers and crews in the world to New York Harbor.

Now he's expanded to Annapolis, his hometown, with the annual Great Cities Challenge, and he's among several sailors pushing the International Yacht Racing Union for an international circuit to keep the match-racing fires burning during non-America's Cup years.

Jobson believes match racing -- in which boats compete in pairs, head-to-head, on small courses that can be laid out in sight of land -- is sailing's best hope for spectator-sport status.

To promote that view, Jobson invited me along as his "tactician" Sunday for the final day of the Great Cities regatta, and it was an eye-opener.

It was hard to keep up with everything, particularly at the starting line, as I told Parker at the end of the day.

"Don't worry about it," he said. "Nobody knows what's going on at the start, not even the skipper. No tactician can help a skipper at the start because the skipper himself doesn't know what he's going to do. At that point it's all instinct and aggressiveness. The crew just has to react."

In the America's Cup, a skipper has crewmen he's practiced with for months or years, who can react instinctively to their leader's sudden moves. In the Great Cities Challenge, Jobson required in the interest of fairness and variety that the four competing skippers and their tacticians switch boats after every race, while the boat-owner and three chosen crewmen stayed put.

Thus when it came time to react to the skipper, poor crewmen such as Nick the bowman had to first remember which skipper it was, and what kind of reaction he sought.

Personally, I've never been as confused as I was aboard Right Stuff when Jobson bore down for prestart maneuvering against Washingtonian Riaz Latifullah, the national Albacore champion, who was driving a boat called Schuss.

It was bedlam. Latifullah took Jobson's stern and Jobson immediately began turning 360s to shake him off. One moment he wanted maximum speed, the next he wanted the boat stopped, and it was hard to tell when one order stopped and the next began, and even harder to stay out of the way of the boom, which came sweeping and crashing across the deck with each move.

It came as little surprise to me that both boats wound up over the starting line before the gun and had to round up and restart. Great job, tactician.

Jobson was furious. I made up for it, though, the very next race, when someone mistakenly dropped the big spinnaker before anyone was assigned to gather it in. I saw the huge, colorful sail go flying off toward the Bay Bridge and, knowing my duty, stood up on the high side of the boat and made a great leap across the deck to grab it.

Jobson picked that moment to swing the tiller. As the boat shot off on a new tack, I was suddenly weightless, aloft, swooping down toward a cold, wind-whipped, gray sea.

"Egad!" I thought, grabbed a fellow crewman's collar as it whizzed past and miraculously hauled myself back aboard.

Good thing, too. You can't finish a race without all crew. I'd have hated to see Jobson's eyes when he came back to fetch me.

Great Cities Challenge Final Standings:

*1. Tony Parker, representing Baltimore.

*2. Gary Jobson, representing Annapolis.

*3. Doby Joslin, representing Philadelphia.

*4. Riaz Latifullah, representing Washington.