A year ago, their oars beat the water in staccato bursts. This season the blades strike the Potomac River in quiet unison. Next spring, they hope to be competitive with long established Northern Virginia crew programs.

Times are changing at Wilson High School, the only District of Columbia high school to have a crew program.

Once the crew struggled to survive. Now, there is a newly formed parents crew booster club to help raise funds. And Georgetown University has been cooperative in lending shells, oars and other equipment to keep up with the club sport's growing popularity.

The team has had some success in its first season this spring, and had two shells, a boys and girls four, competing in the Scholastic Rowing Association nationals, which conclude today at Lake Occoquan.

"Last year everyone asked what crew was and why were we in it," said Roxanna Hopps, who rows in the third seat in girls varsity four. "Now everyone, even the basketball and football players, want to find out how they can join, too."

If not for the commitment of two Georgetown undergraduate students, John Quirke and Alec Farr, who serve as volunteer coaches, the Wilson crew program would be dead in the water.

Their schedule begins early and ends late, but still they persevere.

"I get up about 5 a.m. and then practice with Georgetown's crew from 5:30 until 7:30 or 8," said Quirke, a junior who also finds time to stroke the Hoyas' junior lightweight eights. "Then there are classes and Wilson's practice from 3:30 until 6 or 7. I study between 8 and 11 p.m. , so there's not a whole lot of free time."

Farr's schedule is not much easier. Although he didn't row this spring for Georgetown, Farr, a 6-foot, 200-pound sophomore, has been approached by Hoyas crew coach Jay Forester and football coach Scotty Glacken about playing both sports. For now, though, he'd rather concentrate on his studies and coach Wilson's girls crews. Quirke coaches the boys.

What motivates two college students to donate so much time as volunteer coaches?

"I just want to share what I learned and gained from rowing," said Farr, who rowed scholastically at Yorktown High. "When I was in high school my coach, Steve Weiss, was a George Washington undergraduate student, so this is my way of paying him back.

"I also was burned out after five years of crew," Farr said. "I used to run 15-20 "Exorcist" stairs at the foot of 36th Street in high school, but when I got to Georgetown I found that I could only do five, even though I was in better shape. That's when I knew that I mentally tired of crew and needed a break."

When Forester approached Farr about helping start the Wilson program, Farr jumped at the chance to get back out on the water.

"I'm amazed how much I've gained from coaching, the sense of accomplishment," said Farr. "Now even if I wanted to row again myself I don't know that I could give this up."

Quirke, a Montville, N.J., native, hopes to return to Washington years after graduation and see District scholastic crew flourishing.

"I would love to come back here in 10-15 years and see kids from every D.C. high school rowing on the Potomac," said Quirke. "Then I could lean back and think that I helped start that. That would be something to see."

Like most rowers, Quirke is a fierce competitor, but some of his first rowers didn't share his athletic skill or commitment.

"In the beginning, we weren't getting the natural athletes," said Quirke. "Some of the oarsmen had never played an organized sport before, but we learned together what it takes to make a crew. And now I wouldn't trade our group of kids for anybody's.

"I've learned a lot about myself and being a leader through coaching crew. Actually, I owe them a great deal."

Wilson's crew program, a club program that receives no funding from the school's athletic department, isn't just the handiwork of its young coaches, however. Mary Reiger, the school's girls varsity coach, has served as sponsor and moderator since the idea began in the fall of 1984.

"She has really helped us with maintaining communication with the school," said Farr. "If not for her, I don't know if we could have succeeded like we have."

Crew is an expensive sport. A new eight-oared shell can cost more than $10,000 and other equipment is similarly high-priced, so the formation of the Wilson Crew Parents Booster Club over the winter is a further sign of stability in a program that only began racing competitively this spring.

After a long training process that taught the rowers how to pull the sweep oars in unison and handle their fragile, expensive equipment, Wilson did very well in the Northern Virginia Rowing Association regattas this spring, winning several races, including the boys' fifth eight title.

Wilson's finish in the nationals isn't that important. Just getting there has been a tremendous victory. Wilson Crews Qualify

Wilson High School qualified both boats it entered, a girls junior four and a boys lightweight four, in a preliminary race in the 52nd annual Scholastic Rowing Association national championships at Lake Occoquan.

The finals begin today at 8:40 a.m. The boys senior eight finals are scheduled for 1:20 p.m.

Wilson edged Yorktown by one length to finish second in the boys lightweight fours in 6:02.